Ten years ago, the former Vermont governor launched his presidential campaign, and forever revolutionized our elections. Yeeaaarggggh!
Sunday marks the 10-year anniversary of Howard Dean's formal entry into the 2004 presidential race. On June 23, 2003, Dean launched a campaign that became both a colossal flop that didn't win a single contest outside of his home state, and a blazing comet that sparked a technological and ideological transformation of our politics. Without Dean, there may not have been Obama.
Dean appears to be feeling nostalgic enough to muse about running again in 2016. The notion may seen even crazier today than 10 years ago, with Hillary Clinton commanding so much early support. But before dismissing him as past his prime, it's worth looking back and recognizing how exactly the previously little-known small-state governor changed our politics and set the stage for Obama.
1. He made it cool to radiate a confident liberalism
Early in the race, Dean articulated his belief that Democrats did not need to dilute their views to win in red states. They just needed fresh rhetoric that exploded liberal stereotypes and resonated beyond their own social circles.
For example, in his electric, pugnacious 2003 address to the Democratic National Committee, which gave life to his longshot candidacy, Dean received a standing ovation when he said, "The Republicans have been talking about it since 1968 in order to divide us, and I'm going to bring us together, because you know what, you know what? White folks in the South who drive pick ups with Confederate flag decals on the back ought to be voting with us and not them because their kids don't have health insurance and their kids need better schools too."
The multi-racial crowd immediately rejoiced at the image of taking the fight to all sections of the country instead of shirking from it.
It wasn't until later in the campaign when Dean offered a truncated version of these remarks — "I still want to be the candidate for guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks" — that he was lambasted by his rivals and pressured to seek forgiveness from civil rights leaders. But his original point remained salient: Democrats were more capable of reaching out to voters outside of their cultural comfort zone by using the liberal ideals at the heart of the Democratic agenda, not by junking them.
2. He turned the tables on national security
That 2003 speech began with barely a greeting before Dean ripped, "What I want to know is why in the world the Democratic Party leadership is supporting the president's unilateral attack on Iraq?" Immediately, Dean had grabbed his party by the collar, trying to shake it into sanity.
Many Democrats had recently voted to give Bush the authorization to use military force in Iraq, including eventual nominee Sen. John Kerry. They appeared afraid of being tagged as McGovernite peaceniks.
On that June day 10 years ago, Dean showed none of that fear. He shed the timid notion of foreign policy by political calculation. He confidently sketched out a foreign policy vision that framed opposition to the Iraq invasion in terms that were not reflexively anti-war while challenging the long-held premise that Republicans knew what they were doing on national security:
Every American president must and will take up arms in the defense of our nation. It is a solemn oath that cannot — and that will not — be compromised But there is a fundamental difference between the defense of our nation and the doctrine of preemptive war espoused by this administration. The president's group of narrow-minded ideological advisors are undermining our nation's greatness in the world. They have embraced a form of unilateralism that is even more dangerous than isolationism.
Barack Obama had done the same eight months prior, detailing the wars he has supported before calling the oncoming Iraq invasion a "dumb war" that was hatched by "armchair, weekend warriors in [the Bush] administration to shove their own ideological agendas down our throats." But being an Illinois state senator, few paid attention to him at the time.
It was Dean who first showed the nation there was hunger for a 21st century liberal foreign policy vision to counter the neoconservatives, one more sophisticated that the predictable anti-war rhetoric coming from presidential also-ran Rep. Dennis Kucinich.
Dean got tripped up on Iraq toward the end of his campaign, when Saddam Hussein was captured and the war briefly appeared to be a success. But over the next few years, more and more Democrats found their foreign policy footing in the Dean mold. They took Congress in 2006 running against the war. And in 2008, Obama bested a bona fide war hero by looking at him in the eye and saying, "You said it was going to be quick and easy. You said we knew where the weapons of mass destruction were. You were wrong."
3. He connected politics to the internet
The Dean campaign boasted the first campaign blog, the first formal interview of a presidential candidate with a blogger (that would be me), the first online volunteer organizing operation, and the most successful online fundraising operation to date, with 40 percent of his $50 million haul coming from clicks.
Politicians would have eventually figured out how to use the internet with or without Dean, but probably not as fast. Recall that political professionals were horrified at Dean's willingness to cede so much control of his campaign to whomever showed up online. "Some of these
Meetup [.com] events look like the bar scene from Star Wars," one rival campaign aide infamously said to The New Republic. The official Dean campaign blogger retorted, "Will they never learn? They're called voters."
Then the money started rolling in, forcing the pros to concede that some decentralization was key to build a bond with an army of enthusiastic door-knockers and small-dollar donors.
The Obama campaign picked up Dean's ball and ran with it, continually innovating internet strategies and outclassing all of his rivals. Not only did Obama use the internet to raise more than a combined $1 billion for both his campaigns, he used it to expand the electorate and turn unlikely young voters and minority voters into a decisive advantage.
4. He gave up public campaign financing
Fealty to the dream of a fully public campaign finance system runs deep among liberals. But once Dean realized he had tapped into a small-donor gusher, the notion of unilateral campaign disarmament seemed increasingly foolish.
In November 2003, Dean announced his campaign would opt out of the voluntary public system, which provided some taxpayer funds in exchange for a commitment to abide by spending caps.
Charges of hypocrisy were to be expected. But Dean presumed that it would be hard to condemn a campaign powered by small donations instead of CEO cash. Furthermore, Dean also discerned the hunger to win among Democrats would supersede concerns about money in politics.
Since the Dean campaign imploded two months later, he was never able to fully test his hypothesis (although he did prove that money isn't everything).
More than four years later, Obama made the same call. He faced tough charges of hypocrisy because earlier in the campaign he pledged to stay within the public system if an agreement could be reached with the Republican nominee, and the McCain campaign claimed Obama never tried to reach an agreement.
Obama blew past the criticism, framing the decision in populist terms: "We've built a grassroots movement of over 1.5 million Americans …You've already changed the way campaigns are funded because you know that's the only way we can truly change how Washington works."
The original Dean hypothesis proved correct. It was hard to pillory a campaign with so many small donors. The hunger to win did set aside concerns about money in politics. And since Obama's policy objectives and accomplishments match up with the pragmatic liberal vision he sold to voters from the beginning, it's hard to convincingly claim that he's been corrupted by money.
Even today, while an undercurrent of disgust with campaign money remains on the left, with the occasional complaint from purists that Obama does not prioritize the issue, the fact is so long as Democrats are winning, most on the left don't prioritize the issue either.
We have Howard Dean to thank for that.
More from The Week:
- 4 secret societies you probably don't know about
- America's bacon obsession: 13 bacon-inspired products [Updated]
- 8 ridiculous pop culture-inspired cookbooks: A slideshow