WASHINGTON — Amid the fury during the fall of 2003 over his promise to represent “guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks,” former Vermont governor and front-running presidential candidate Howard Dean said he had only meant to declare his big tent appeal. Days later he told a crowd in Tallahassee, Florida, that Southerners should stop voting on “race, God, guns, and gays.”
But the big tenter sank in Iowa because he was too extreme. Flash forward a year, and Dean is the Democratic National Committee chairman-apparent. He’s had to behave and gain support by altering his image to chastened yet energetic party strategist. In this new role, Howard Dean is like a teenage wild man pressed into military service — not quite comfortable with new expectations. So which Dean would appear at his victory rally on Capitol Hill last night? The Scream or The Moderate?
At first it seemed Dean knew full what’s expected of him, displaying shades of moderation. The capacity crowd at the Capital City Brewery greeted him like a rock star, but Dean emerged in the traditional Washington uniform of white shirt, navy blue suit and blue tie. He attempted to shake The Scream with humor, joking, “I’ll be careful about the direction of the mike this time.” He introduced his early backer, Senator Jim Jeffords. He even dipped into requisite modesty by twice cautioning that he’s not yet the DNC chairman. (The actual DNC vote is several days away.) Dean touched on national security by citing Democratic initiative on the Department of Homeland Security and loose nukes in the 1990s. He refrained from his radical antiwar cries of late 2003 and early 2004. The post-election Democratic values bandwagon had room for even Dean last night as he insisted the party would talk about faith.
His own faithful knew the tune. Mara Abrams, who works at a Democratic consulting firm, said Dean’s extreme reputation is a “misnomer. He’s a centrist on a lot of issues.” Scott Goldstein, American University student and Democracy for American volunteer, cited Dean’s National Rifle Association endorsement and argued that Dean only differs in that “he actually shows up and says what he thinks.”
But this wasn’t a crowd of moderates. Howard Dean’s campaign for DNC chairman rode the cult of personality that was founded in an extreme candidacy. And his D.C. followers were present, packing the restaurant and lining up down the block. They didn’t quite recognize this Howard: One supporter cried, “Give ’em hell, Howard!” They chanted “Dean! Dean!” and mobbed him for autographs as soon as he finished his speech. Treating Dean like Bono while “Beautiful Day” filled the air, young men and women reached over the crowd with their digital cameras and cameraphones to catch their glimpse. Pep rally-style signs like “People Powered Howard” hung from the balcony. Though Dean and his supporters have told the press in the last week that Dean isn’t the Dems’ new policy man, these folks don’t think he’ll be a mere organizer or strategist.
Nor does the new Dean seem ready to play moderate or mere party chair. He repeated his line about the necessity for good Democrats to run for library trusteeships since they “read books instead of burn them.” He said President Bush “ought to be ashamed to take out personal attacks” on Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid. It’s hard to see the big tent with a party chairman whose strategy for discussing faith entails, “We’ll talk about our faith, but we won’t change it. We need to talk about who are as Democrats and we need to be proud to be Democrats.” Ticking off various elections he would target, Dean whipped himself up and said he wanted to make sure “Schwarzenegger gets terminated, and Senator Frist goes back to heart operations, but not on me!”
Ah yes, this is the Dean we came to know and love during the presidential campaign after all. This is the Dean who claims Republican Social Security reform will stick those under 30 with $25,000 in personal debt. The Dean who raises the specter of “enormous environmental debt” for young people and your children and the dismantling of public education. He says the Democrats need a positive agenda, and then mentions that he looks forward to working with Reid and Nancy Pelosi.
Officially, Howard Dean based his DNC candidacy on his strong campaigning and organizational skills. But he noted Wednesday that he didn’t find Internet support. It found him. He’s no brilliant organizer. He’s a rhetorician. Dean won’t be a fundraising suit. He won’t be a moderate. Dean is reaching for power, warning congressional leadership and jazzing up the troops by noting “people in this town are afraid I’ll be very unorthodox.” He will be. And Jim Jeffords knows the score. He noted last night that after his conversion when Dean was running, he knew “the nation was back on course. That didn’t happen this time … It’s going to happen next time.” Next time? Has anyone told Hillary?