Now that Howard Dean has ascended to the chairmanship of the Democrat National Committee, Republicans are high-fiving one another with such...
NOW that Howard Dean has ascended to the chairmanship of the Democrat National Committee, Republicans are high-fiving one another with such mad glee that you’d think Democrats had just nominated Dennis Kucinich to run in 2008. The GOP needs to sit back down, recork the champagne and get back to work. Whether they know it or not, Republicans need to understand that Dean spells trouble for the Republican Party. Big trouble.
Republicans may think that the nomination of Dean is hysterically funny — a scream, in fact, as George Will recently put it — but they are deluding themselves if they think Dean is nothing more than a wild-eyed ideologue with a temper and a cult following.
Dean brings three talents to the chairmanship that can potentially sink not just a GOP presidential candidate in 2008 but the Republican-controlled House and maybe even the Senate well before then.
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First, he’s a fund-raiser par excellence. Lest we Republicans forget, not only did Howard Dean set records for fund raising, he set them in one of the most imaginative, difficult and unorthodox ways imaginable — namely, through the Internet. And remember, he set those records not by initially tapping the big-money crowd but by combing through the grass roots for nickels and dimes.
Second, and more important, Dean knows not only how to raise money but what to do with it once he gets it. He has repeatedly declared that he’s going to rebuild the Democratic Party from the bottom up, blade by blade, volunteer by volunteer, state by state, because he understands that face-to-face get-out-the-vote programs, not slick advertising or direct-mail merchandizing, are what win elections.
Not only does he have a mountain of scholarly evidence confirming this — Yale, of all places, has a group of scholars insisting that the only get-out-the-vote effort that works at all is face-to-face contact — but he also has the elections of 2004 to go on. After all, virtually every commentator and analyst in politics is claiming that the Bush victory is owed largely to its monumental grass-roots get-out-the-vote effort. And if Dean stands for anything, it’s the importance of grass-roots politics.
Third, he is charismatic. And this is where Republicans make their biggest mistake in judging him. They believe his allegedly vegan, bohemian liberalism will appeal only to lefties from New England and Seattle.
Well, maybe so, but that’s not the secret to Dean’s charisma or his recent DNC election. Dean’s appeal doesn’t lie primarily in the fact that he’s a great speaker (although he is) but in the fact that he’s a great listener.
Grass-roots activists in both parties have been so starved for attention and support during the past 20 years that they will flock to the first person who promises to listen and do what he can to support them.
And that, more than anything else, was the message that Dean took to the party faithful in his campaign for the party chairmanship: He’s there for them, not for the insiders, not for the professionals, and certainly not for the consultants. Dean will be there for the hardworking activists who make up the rank and file.
Contrast this to the state of the Republican base right now. No less a figure than Rush Limbaugh is warning the president that he faces a mutiny if he and the Republican Congress don’t control spending and protect the borders, the two top concerns of the GOP rank and file.
In fact, if Republican leadership fails here, the GOP will have bigger problems than Howard Dean.
Now more than ever, the Republican Party needs to toss its heavy-handed, top-down management style overboard and rejuvenate its grass-roots parties. Howard Dean already has.
Reed Davis is an associate professor of political science at Seattle Pacific University. He ran for the GOP nomination to the U.S. Senate last year, and is a former chairman of the King County Republican Party.