Remembering Howard Dean’s 2004 Campaign

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.

Internet Might

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., 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 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 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.

Media Barrage

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 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!”

Joshua Frank is co-editor of Dissident Voice and author of Left Out! How Liberals Helped Reelect George W. Bush (Common Courage Press, 2005), and along with Jeffrey St. Clair, the editor of Red State Rebels: Tales of Grassroots Resistance in the Heartland, published by AK Press in June 2008. Check out the Red State Rebels site. Read other articles by Joshua.

8 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Mike McNiven said on November 27th, 2007 at 10:19am #

    According to an ex-staff member in the national campaign office of the D party, it was Terry McAulif who was leaking all those negative evaluations about Mr.Dean to the major media! The big capital didn’t like Dean — they liked the big capital John Kerry!

  2. Robert B. Livingston said on November 27th, 2007 at 10:29am #

    More than any other, Joshua Frank’s book Left Out! opened my eyes to the moral deficit inherent in the Democratic Party.

    It still needs to be read– and everybody who enjoys Dissident Voice should get a copy of it if they haven’t gotten one already.

    As a reminder of who Dean really is and what he ever really stood for, I suggest everyone here also review the classic July 9, 2004 Annenberg C-Span debate between Howard Dean and Ralph Nader.

  3. Michael Dawson said on November 27th, 2007 at 10:34am #

    They crushed him because he was sounding like he going to seriously flirt with single-payer health insurance and a return to organizing and representing the bottom half of the population. Tells you something about what we’d get in those areas from Killary Klinton (or any other “major” Dem), doesn’t it?

    Screw em, penalize em, don’t waste your vote on them. Don;t waste your energies caring about what they say in the meantime, either. It’s all political marketing with these creeps.

  4. Deadbeat said on November 27th, 2007 at 11:40am #

    Interesting listening to the Nadar – Dean debate again with the claim on the dire need to vote for Kerry. Two years later the Democrats won control of the Congress and the troops are still in Iraq. Apparently Nadar was correct in his critique of the Democrats.

  5. Marcelle Cendra said on November 27th, 2007 at 8:30pm #

    Wasn’t Dean…so long with his imprimatur over capital punishment in Vermont…very much for the death penalty? If that’s spot-on-target…isn’t there a “positive” correlation of “inclination” there for overseas “interventions”…? — Marcelle

  6. Christopher London said on November 28th, 2007 at 4:27am #

    America is on the verge of a revolution. It is brewing. The deep seated anger and pain of Americas is dismissed by the MSM. Fat Cats who all lined up behind Bush/Cheney and the Neoc0n band of thugs that stole the election in 2000 and 2004, are all lining up behind Hillary. The DLC was all about bringing the big dogs with the big checks back in the Democratic Party. So here we are 8 Years later. Ask yourself, are we better off with Bush/Cheney and their neoconservative cronies in office or would we have been better off had the Supreme Court and MSM not been complicit in allowing them to steal elections? The will of the American people was thwarted twice. History will recognize that the radical agenda commenced with the stolen elections and the “taint” of criminality in the Bush clan tracing back to WW II, the JFK Assassination etc. There are just too many historically “Incovenient Truths”. Challengers all disappear into thin air in random plane crashes, accidents and assasinations: JFK, RFK, MLK, Jr., JFK Jr., Paul Wellstone. And Hillary conveniently did not have to contend with a Democrat being elected in 2000 or 2008. You see the Clintons are simply criminals. Bringing change to America and serving the people has never been their goal. Ruling and having access to power has always been the only goal. Americans are slowly waking up. That is why the next attack will come with regards to “net neutrality” If they cannot dope up the population on alcohol, sex, entertainment and gossip than they will take away the last source of independent ideas and information. At that point, I certainly do hope that we have our Second Amendment Rights. Consider the following quote: “If the people knew what we had done, they would chase us down the street and lynch us.” George H.W. Bush to journalist Sarah McClendon, December 1992. You know what, maybe that is not such a bad idea after all. Democracy in America is dying. The ruling classes in this country have gone beyond greed to outright gluttony. There is no truth, honor and service. Those who had great love of the county and who showed great possibility are no longer here: RFK, MLK, Jr., JFK, Jr., Paul Wellstone. The Clintons relationship with the Bushes is so damn cozy. You have to wonder what George Magazine would be saying about this now or whether Paul Wellstone would have run for President in 2004 clipping short a second term for the 4th Reich. Who really is John Kerry? What role do people like him really play? Howard Dean was not a LIBERAL but he tapped into the pulse of America and cared perhaps a bit too much about regular people. Hence he had to be demonized and marginalized.

  7. Dissident Voice : Beltway Democrats Sink Dean For America said on November 28th, 2007 at 5:30am #

    […] Read Part One here. […]

  8. Marcia Moody said on December 4th, 2007 at 6:37am #

    Oh yes, the power hungry were the ones who brought down Howard Dean in 2004. Isn’t it rather funny that the person who was supposed to remain neutral, namely Terry McAuliff as the then Chairman of the DNC, was appointed by Bill Clinton and became the head of Hillary Clinton’s campain (spelling intentional) was one of the loudest voices heard against Howard Dean? Howard Dean has always been a class act. As the present Chairman of the DNC he has remained absolutely neutral and has not said one word either for nor against any of the eight individual Democrats currently running for the Presidency. In fact he has praised the group as being the best slate of Democratic candidates ever to run.

    To show you just how far the power elete in Washington stretches, I complained about James Carville and Paul Begaula and their ridiculous criticism of Howard Dean’s “50 State Strategy” that really WAS responsible for getting Democrats elected in 2006. Carville and his ilk and his DLC and Hillary connections are so blatantly obvious. As a result of my criticizing them for trying to get Dean fired when all he did was to succeed in getting grassroots Democrats elected, resulted in a personal phone call to me from Terry McAuliff attempting to “set the record straight”. He had the unmitigated gall to tell me that Hillary’s campaign supported Howard Dean and his 50 State Strategy.

    Yes, they are still so afraid of Howard Dean because they know he is right. He is rebuilding the Democratic Party from the ground up and those coming in are eventually going to unseat those “do-nothing” Democrats who have held on to their power far too long. Howard is right….We have the power to take our country back!

    Isn’t it amazing that every single one of the current candidates are all claiming to be for the very same issues that Howard Dean used in his 2004 stump speech? Those issues being: “End the war in Iraq, health care for all, early childhood development, get rid of ‘No child left behind’. keep jobs here in America and create new jobs through establishing renewable energy. restructure AFTA and WTO to give foreign workers union rights and protections, and restore America’s moral authority by using diplomacy and working with those who disagree with us rather than going to war.”

    These were all the issues Howard Dean campaigned on in 2004 and he never got the credit for his foresight and common sense by the Media and the Beltway insiders. As I said before, Howard Dean is a class act and just think how different this world would be today had he not been taken down by his own party and gone on to the nomination and been elected.