Thursday, February 10, 2005

Dean as DNC Chair

For my "maiden" post to On The Hustings, I was planning to offer an explanation of why John Kerry lost the 2004 election, but Howard Dean's presumptive victory in the race for chair of the Democratic National Committee is a more timely matter.

Let me say at the outset that I did not support Dean for president. I had a number of problems with his candidacy, but the biggest was his complete lack of credibility on security issues. It's not that I thought the Democrats could capture that issue - they couldn't (and they won't be able to going forward) no matter who they nominate. But they could go some distance toward neutralizing it. That's why I was for Kerry from the beginning (though I did toy with the Wesley Clark idea for about two weeks; see this column that I wrote for when Clark announced). We can argue, in retrospect, about whether Kerry had the right kinds of security credentials - despite the Swift Boat Veterans attacks, I still believe he did - but at the time I thought it was clear that Kerry offered some protection against the "weak on defense" attack that was certain to come from Republicans regardless of who the Democratic nominee was.

Having said all that, I do believe Dean is a good choice for DNC chair and I think the handwringing in some quarters is misplaced. Dean, more than any other candidate for chair, will be able to maintain and build upon the base of the Democratic Party. It's too early to tell just how effective party activist blogs like Daily Kos and MyDD are, but my hunch is that there is great potential there to transform the Democratic Party into a grassroots juggernaut. The "netroots" will be a big part of the Democratic base in the future, both in terms of money and organization. Had an "establishment" candidate been chosen as chair, there's a good chance the Democrats would have lost a lot of the new recruits who were brought into the party in 2004. With Dean as chair, the energy and excitement of the MoveOn and Democracy for America crowds can be tapped to help rebuild the Democratic Party.

Of course, the argument against Dean is that, by appealing to the party's base, he'll turn off swing voters. But running the party isn't like running for president. The party's message won't be Dean's alone; he has already said that he's going to leave the policy agenda to governors and members of Congress. Furthermore, swing voters don't pay attention to political minutia like what the party chairs have to say. If Dean keeps his head down and organizes, as he's promised to do, he'll be successful.

There is reason to be slightly concerned about Dean as chair. As Jonathan Chait points out in a rather snide LA Times column, Dean is something of a "loose cannon." And while he may not be crafting the message (at least not by himself), he will be coordinating it. Thus, even if the party message is a good one, the messenger may not be. In addition, his presidential campaign lacked managerial oversight. That may not be entirely Dean's fault, but he'll need to oversee the day-to-day operation at the DNC and ensure that it's being run efficiently.

The chair of a political party is not as powerful a position as it might seem. Nevertheless, the most influential chairs have been those who lead their parties when they were out of power. As I hope to make clear in future posts, I don't think the Democratic Party is in any sort of crisis. However, a good dose of organizational reform would be useful. For that task, I think Howard Dean is the right choice.


At 11:03 PM, Anonymous Millian Man March said...

How much does the party chair really matter, anyway? How much blame does Terry MacAuliffe bear for Kerry's defeat? For other Democratic losses?

At 9:24 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

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