Sunday, February 06, 2005

The Dean backlash

My good friend Brendan jumps on the small anti-Dean bandwagon, but I think he's too pessimitic.

(Side note: the extremely small number of people who read this blog will note that I seem to link to and comment on Brendan's blog more often than others. There's a simple reason: Since I don't follow politics closely these days, Brendan's is one of the very few blogs I still read.)

Brendan cites and approvingly quotes a vicious piece by Jonathan Chait, who has written some fantastic articles for The New Republic about George W. Bush's spin on economic issues. (And who gave a very nice blurb for my and Brendan's book.) But it's also a column that ignores a lot of relevant information in making an assessment of Dean.

To start, I have to say that when it comes to judging Howard Dean, Chait is one of the last people on the left I would turn to. During the primary, Chait wrote a blog devoted entirely to bashing Howard Dean. I suspect he would find something negative to say if Howard Dean saved a baby from a burning building.

Given how devoid of leadership and ideas the Democrats seem to be, I think they would benefit greatly from a chairman with some national stature and dynamism. When you're talking about someone like that, you're usually talking about someone who has a record with plenty to pick on.

Howard Dean has that, of course. He said some embarassing things and ran a campaign that proved to have support that was very shallow beyond a core group. But of course, everyone in the world thought he had the campaign sewn up in December of 2003, not just him.

Stuff like Garance Franke-Ruta's quotes from his campaign staffers are just silly. I think any journalist could find staffers from a presidential campaign, especially a losing one, with negative things to say about their boss. (Unless they work for Bush, in which case I believe there is a mental implant that shocks them if they ever go off message in front of a reporter)

And yes, Dean sometimes went off message. But he got great press during his campaign until he started losing. I don't think anyone should really be criticizing his skills in dealing with the press. I don't see any reason to believe that he couldn't stay on message when appearing on CNN to spread some DNC talking points. I saw him on Real Time with Bill Maher a month or two before the election and he was totally on message talking up John Kerry. The man isn't clueless.

Perhaps the most damning thing that could be said about Dean's campaign was how quickly they burnt through the money. Chait accurately points out that "Dean, remember, raised about $50 million by positioning himself as the most anti-Bush candidate, but blew through it so fast that he was nearly broke by January." But that's the kind of thing that's easy to say in hindsight. Given how the primaries unfortunately work, winning Iowa and New Hampshire is key, as Kerry found out. If things had gone better for Dean and he had won Iowa and New Hampshire, he would have rolled through later primaries and raised more money and everyone would have praised his financial acumen. Furthermore, the next few primaries after Iowa and New Hampshire, like South Carolina, were ones he probably wasn't going to win, so it seems to me to make sense to have spent heavily in those two states. That's not to say it was the right decision, but it's not as obvoiusly wrong as Chait makes it out to be.

Oh, and Chait points out that only 27% of Democrats approve of Dean. I can't access that poll on the Wall Street Journal, but I wonder how many approve of Simon Rosenberg or Donnie Fowler? I bet very few, since nobody knows who those people are. It hardly seems like a fair comparison.

And to my mind there are many positives Chait ignores. Dean is well respected in the base, which matters more than Chait wants to admit (the base didn't win the last campaign, but they helped Kerry get very close). And what about Dean's time as governor of Vermont? He was elected five times, balanced the budget, supported gun control, and created a model health insurance program. And while Vermont clearly leans left, it isn't San Francisco, and he certainly had to appeal to a more rural constituency than most Democrats are used to.

Actually, this article in The New Republic about the selection process for DNC chair (which exposes the flaws of letting the DNC members vote, but doesn't seem to dwell on the top-down selection that got us the unauspicious chairmanships of Terry McAuliffe and Ron Brown) shows why Dean may be an excellent DNC chair. Think he was too undisciplined during his presidential run? He clearly ran a campaign that gave those voting for DNC chair exactly what they needed to hear to vote for him. Think he's a clueless liberal? Dean took that head on and pointed out that his record is a lot more than what Joe Trippi made him in the presidential campaign, for better or worse.

Most importantly, Dean wants Democrats to take the mantle of "reform," which if implemented correctly is exactly what we need to be. He's clearly someone who gets we need fresh, big, easily understandable ideas.

Will Dean be a great DNC chair? I'm not sure, but I think he certainly could be.

One thing I am sure of is that simplistic attacks like Chait's that ignore both Dean's tenure as governor and what he had to say while running for DNC chair aren't very helpful in figuring that out.

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