Gagging Dr. Dean

Why does Howard Dean's own party consider him the most dangerous character in Washington?


Ideologically, Dean makes a curious vessel for the party establishment's wrath. As he told a very liberal-friendly ACLU crowd in Minneapolis two months ago, he is "not that liberal" himself. In fiscal terms he is a balance-the-budget guy, like Bill Clinton, who in turn described himself thusly, in Bob Woodward's The Agenda: Inside the Clinton White House: "I hope you're all aware we're all Eisenhower Republicans. We're Eisenhower Republicans here, and we are fighting the Reagan Republicans. We stand for lower deficits and free trade and the bond market." Dean talks about social programs, mainly health care, but of course a Democratic Party that followed his lead would be mightily constrained in funding social programs by its budget-balancing creed. In sum, Dean is a little more liberal on domestic issues than Clinton, a little less liberal than Richard Nixon. Now that he has quit speaking up against the war (We cannot leave Iraq, he says at every stop), there is little to make him unpalatable to frontline Democrats on issues of policy.

Two things make Democratic Party powers lose sleep over Dean. The first and less distinct is his taste for the populist rhetorical style. He has a flair for articulating popular anger in popular terms, and he is very good at seeing where to strike. It doesn't matter much that he is sometimes inarticulate or in less than full command of his factual claims for the same reason it hasn't mattered in the far more egregious case of George W. Bush: Rank-and-file Democrats and independents who see Dean tend to like him. The unprecedented war chest he amassed from nickel-and-dime donors before the Iowa Massacre is ample proof of it. And this brings us to the more material reason the Democrats hate Howard Dean: He threatens to refigure the fundraising base of the party, however modestly, and thus to shift the balance of power in the party hierarchy.

Jay Bevenour

This is unacceptable. But to see why, you first have to set aside one of the great American civics-class myths, which is that the first mission of political parties is to win elections. In his posthumously released 1993 book Indispensable Enemies, the late critic and political historian Walter Karp expressed the rule thus: "Insofar as is controlled at all, the sole abiding purpose, the sole overriding interest of those who control it, is to maintain that control. This, not election victory, is the fundamental and unswerving principle of party politics in America." One might say that winning elections is the lifeblood of a party, and past a certain point the party collapses if it does not keep a sufficient share of power and patronage. But job one is to assure the survival of the prevailing cast of characters--the officers, powerbrokers, and, now more than ever, the main funders of the party apparatus. This observation is based on the hardly radical idea that people in power tend not to surrender that power without a fight.

Karp goes on to spell out some of the measures that holding on to power entails:

Party organizations are neither malevolent nor benevolent; they are self-interested.... In holding elected officials accountable to them, they will see to it that no laws are passed which might weaken the [party] organization; that no public issues are raised which might strengthen the chance of insurgents and independents; that special privileges are not stripped away from special interests that have been paying the organization heavily for protecting those privileges. They use their power continually to maintain their control over patronage, over campaign funds, over nominations, over the avenues to public renown, over the whole arsenal of political rewards and punishments without which the organization would collapse in a trice....

The grassroots political activity of the citizenry and its inseparable adjunct, the entry into public life of non-organization politicians, is a constant threat to party organizations. It spurs political ambitions outside their control. It opens new avenues to public renown. It encourages outsiders to enter party primaries and gives them a chance to win. It opens to officeholders themselves the opportunity to win public support on their own and thus render themselves independent of the organization. It is therefore the perpetual endeavor of party organizations to discourage and even squash grassroots movements.

Beneath the mass media dustup over Dean's rhetoric, there is a related and more telling battle going on over precisely the issue of grassroots fundraising. Dean wants to use the same fundraising strategy as party chair that he used as a candidate, emphasizing small donations collected over the internet and through state and local efforts coordinated via the internet. Through the end of April, the Democrats had raised a little over $18 million. The Republicans had raised almost $43 million. Critics seized on the discrepancy as proof Dean could not deliver. This fails to consider the position in which Democrats found themselves relative to Republicans after the last election ("The Republicans control pretty much everything," notes Democratic political consultant Steve Cobble, "so why wouldn't they have a huge edge in fundraising?"), and it likewise ignores the fact that Dean has raised more money than his predecessor had at the same point following the 2000 election, when the party could still receive direct soft-money donations. Judged against those two factors, Dean's performance as a fundraiser would seem pretty respectable.

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