Four years ago today Howard Dean was ahead in the polls and set to dominate the early race in Iowa and the primaries in New Hampshire. It was the first time the internet had been used to amass support for a presidential candidate, and the outpouring of antiwar fervor for Dean’s campaign threw the Washington establishment in to a tailspin. It was set to be a campaign to remember, yet it amounted to little more than a forgotten headline. Below we run the following essay from Joshua Frank’s book Left Out! How Liberals Helped Reelect George W. Bush to remember what we are so soon to forget: the Democrats aren’t ready or willing to reform, let alone oppose. It’s a valuable lesson, one we ought to keep in mind as the following year of electoral madness and political punditry unfolds. Tomorrow we’ll run the second half of Frank’s essay, outlining the DLC powers that crushed Dean’s grassroots movement, despite that Dean, during his tenure in Vermont, was a pro-war, pro-business insider. – DV Editors
In his early campaign speeches, Howard Dean exclaimed, “You don’t know me, but you will.” How right he was. Indeed many, including elite circles of Washington Democrats who were already putting their resources behind the candidacy of John F. Kerry, had not heard much of the former Vermont governor. But Dean thought he was ready to take the insiders on full-throttle. The feisty Vermonter entered the race for President on June 23, 2003, and immediately laid out his strategy for challenging George W. Bush and his band of neoconservative cronies. “You’ve got the power to take back Washington!” he yelled. And people listened.
Even before Dean officially announced his intentions to run for president he seemed to have his finger on the pulse of the Democratic underground. He knew that hostility among his party’s grassroots had all but boiled over by March of 2003 when top “liberals” in D.C. caved in and endorsed the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq. As opponents of the U.S.-led war on Iraq took their grievances to the streets across the country, hundreds of young Democrat enthusiasts handed out Dean campaign propaganda to their protesters-in-arms. For Dean’s base, this was a golden opportunity to spread the word that Howard was not only going to run for president, but that he also opposed the invasion of Iraq.
These progressives latched on quickly to Dean’s insurgent candidacy, and luckily for him, they all had cash and Internet access. Joe Trippi, Dean’s ingenious campaign manager, and the campaign’s outreach web masters, Matthew Gross and Zephyr Teachout, ran his web sensation. Trippi, who was an aeronautical engineering student in College, had a former career in computer software, as well as the experience of six presidential campaigns, brought technological expertise to his managerial post. And like the Internet bubble of the 1990s, Dean’s website literally took off in a matter of weeks. For the first time, a presidential campaign was using the far-reaching capabilities of the Internet to spread the word about its candidate. With the help of online forums and Web logs (blogs), the campaign enabled like-minded people to convene and communicate with one another about the Dean campaign and vent frustration about the egregious policies of the first four years of the Bush junta.
In an interview with Lawrence Lessig, Trippi said of the Dean blog, “[I think] there’s a sense of community that forms around the blog. That’s really what the net is about. It’s about building a community. There may be zillions of communities within the net, but you know, your own community builds around that blog.” Dean, meanwhile, could not have been happier about his campaign’s early success: “We fell into this by accident,” admitted Dean. “I wish I could tell you we were smart enough to figure this out. But the community taught us. They built our organization for us before we had an organization.”
However, Dean’s campaign wasn’t propelled by his blog alone. Meetup.com, an Internet site that enables the organization of events for groups and other social networks, also played a pivotal role. With this organizing tool, the Dean for America campaign was able to bring together and organize supporters in cities throughout the U.S. In the spring of 2003, Dean attended his first Meetup event in New York City, where 300 loyal followers were in attendance. Amazed with the turnout, Dean knew that the vitality of his campaign involved bringing together like-minded people like the large NYC group.
By late March 2003, the Dean campaign was the most successful Meetup group ever, far outnumbering the forthcoming presidential aspirants with over 16,000 members. All this before Dean had even officially announced his own candidacy. By late 2003, that number soured, over 140,000 Dean supporters (“Deaniacs,” as they called themselves) had joined Meetup and attended Dean campaign events, typically held on a weekly basis at a local café or pub, where supporters met to discuss how to spread the populist word on the Vermonter.
Trippi and his gang were running a successful one-of-a-kind campaign. In a Wire.com interview in early January of 2004, Dean avowed, “A lot of the people on the net have given up on traditional politics precisely because it was about television and the ballot box, and they had no way to shout back,” he said. “What we’ve given people is a way to shout back, and we listen — they don’t even have to shout anymore.”
Unlike his rivals in the campaign to unseat Bush, Dean claimed to actually be in tune with his community of faithful supporters, who by June of 2003 had raised over $10.5 million dollars for his campaign. Bringing in over $15 million dollars in small online donations — which typically averaged a meager $25 dollars a pop — Dean broke the record for money raised by a single Democrat in one period by the presidential race’s third quarter. Dean’s crusade was in full flight. “This is a campaign that no one has ever seen before!” Trippi exclaimed.
It was the making of a new wave of democratic participation — call it “credit card activism” — where tech-savvy liberals latched onto Howard Dean’s unorthodox campaign while he challenged the Iraq war and took on the Democratic establishment by raising bundles of cash outside the Democrat’s normal corporate circles. When the online activist organization MoveOn.org held their mock primary in late June 2003, the Dean campaign received an added boost, receiving financing from their own broad membership base. Echoing the beliefs of these liberals, Dean felt that the DC insiders were taking their party “too far to the right.” And they were none too happy.
“I have come to believe that a large part of why the DLC attacks Howard Dean so vehemently has a lot more to do with the power of what they’re saying this campaign is about,” said Trippi during Dean’s summer peak. “They’re not real thrilled with it.”
To be sure, Dean was taking on the harlots of special interest — read: John Kerry, and DNC chair Terry McAuliffe — for their support of Bush’s war while ignoring his fellow peace candidate, Dennis Kucinich, time and time again. Slyly borrowing a line from the late Senator Paul Wellstone, Dean proclaimed that, unlike the other candidates, he truly represented “the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party.” Dean was certainly empowered by his massive cyber support, and despite the Beltway Democrat’s response, the media had no choice but to cover his ardent campaign.
When the national media finally began to track the Dean spectacle, they were unsure of how they should respond. Dean’s style seemed fuming and visceral, he wasn’t polished; he wore old suits, skinny ties, and penny loafers. He was not “presidential” by traditional TV standards. After a speech given by Dean, the Washington Post introduced the presidential hopeful with the following unbecoming portrait: “Howard Dean was angry. Ropy veins popped out of his neck, blood rushed to his cheeks, and his eyes, normally blue-gray, flashed black, all dilated…”
Republican attack dogs quickly pounced on such caricatures. And Dean soon became the beloved soft target for right-wing pundits like the fat, racist, pill-popping Rush Limbaugh, who claimed that Dean was not only a fanatic but also a crazy Maoist, out of touch with the real America. In fact, Rush claimed Dean wasn’t portrayed as liberal enough by the corporate media. “Have you noticed how some in the press are starting to say Howard Dean is not that liberal?” Limbaugh barked on his popular radio show. “Keep a sharp eye out for that because the left knows that being a far left, progressive liberal is a killer, so they’re going to try to paint the picture of Dean as a moderate.”
Of course, it was pure trash, as Howard Dean touted his centrist platform time and again while trouncing along the campaign trail. “I think it’s pathetic I’m considered a left-wing liberal,” Dean was quoted as saying in a 2003 Washington Post article. “It just shows how far to the right this country has lurched.”
Not all coverage was negative, however. In the summer of 2003, Dean graced the covers of Time and Rolling Stone. While the features run in these two magazines were by-and-large honest portrayals of the ex-governor, they failed to critically analyze his tenure in Vermont. Newsweek took a different approach, entitling their cover story on Dean, “All the Rage: Dean’s Shoot-From-the-Hip Style and Shifting Views Might Doom Him in November.” This, of course, was typical of the mainstream media’s ad hominem attacks on Howard.
On the flip side, many in the liberal establishment praised the governor. Various columnists like The Nation’s prosier pundit Eric Alterman, defended Dean in late 2003, writing:
Saddam Hussein may be out of his spider hole, but Washington’s real enemy is still at-large. His name: ‘Howard Dean’ — and nobody in America poses a bigger threat to the city’s sense of its own importance,” Alterman snarled. “New Republic writer Michelle Cottle returned from maternity leave to find Washington fit for a ‘Tarantino-style blood bath,’ with the Democratic front-runner cast as a ‘paleoliberal … a heartless conservative … too naïve to beat Bush … too politically cynical to trust … a Stalinist … [and] a neofascist [who] kills babies and drinks their blood … Dean has some problems, no doubt, but the pundits hardly seem to notice that George W. (“You can’t distinguish between Al Qaeda and Saddam when you talk about the war on terror”) Bush cannot pretend to defend deceiving the nation into war anymore.
Other liberals, enticed by Dean’s alleged tenacity, praised him for offering an alternative — albeit as you’ll read later, an “alternative” based mostly on rhetoric and largely unsupported by substantive evidence. But respected author and syndicated columnist Molly Ivins, who recognized Dean was no liberal, wrote in support of his efforts nonetheless, “I went up to Vermont and talked to a bunch of liberals there. They all said Howard Dean is no liberal. Funny, that’s what Howard Dean says, too. And indeed, he isn’t, but in politics, everything’s relative.”
Veteran political author William Greider, who at one point played an advisory role in the Dean campaign, wrote of the governor’s demeanor in an article titled “Why I’m For Dean”: “The press corps has not had much experience with Democrats of this type, so reporters read Dean’s style as emotional, possibly a character flaw. He reminds me of olden days when Democrats were a more contentious bunch, always fighting noisily among themselves and often with creative results … The guy is a better politician than the insiders imagined, indeed better attuned to this season than they are.”
As these well-known commentators embraced the Dean saga, the corporate media continued to lambaste him for his personality quarks and on-stage slip-ups. Some conspiratorial Deaniacs contended that it was purely a reactionary fight because Dean was speaking out against media consolidation. Others claimed it was meant to paint Dean as unelectable. “The former Vermont governor remains the front-runner among Democratic voters”, Eric Boehlert wrote for Salon.com on January of 2004, “he’s gotten increasingly caustic treatment from the media, which has dwelled on three big themes — that Dean’s angry, gaffe-prone and probably not electable — while giving comparatively far less ink to the doctor’s policy and political prescriptions that have catapulted him ahead of the Democratic field.” All this unsavory media coverage months before the first primary vote was cast in Iowa.
Endorsing a Loser
In early November 2003, the three largest labor unions in the country — the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, and the Service Employees International Union — pledged to back Howard Dean, providing a striking blow to his labor famous opponent Richard Gephardt’s lackluster campaign. Made up of 3 million strong, the unions’ bandwagon support seemed to solidify Dean as the man to beat.
Then, in a bold move in early December the former vice president Al Gore endorsed Dean for America. Gore, invigorated by his 2000 loss – er, win – was chastised for turning his back on the DLC and his former running mate, Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman. And in January 2004, just before the first Iowa caucus, veteran Democratic Senator from the Hawkeye state, Tom Harkin, rolled up his sleeves and gave Dean a spirited endorsement. “For me, the candidate that rose to the top as our best shot to beat George W. Bush and to give Americans the opportunity to take our country back,” Harkin cheered, “That person is Governor Howard Dean!”