HOWARD DEAN WAS NEVER VERY good to John Kerry. On November 1, the day before the election, Dean's blog posted six lengthy entries and mentioned Kerry just twice. On Election Day, Dean's blog led with a post proclaiming "Dean, Man of the Year," and then followed with other posts about the election. Kerry's name was not mentioned until just before 7:00 p.m.
On November 3, Dean posted this bit of triumphalism: "a record number of us voted to change course--more Americans voted against George Bush than any sitting president in history. Today is not an ending. . . . While we did not get the result we wanted in the presidential race, we laid the groundwork for a new generation of Democratic leaders." Again, Dean failed to mention Kerry.
It wasn't much of a surprise--Dean never liked Kerry. Even at the Democratic convention in Boston, whenever he talked about the party's nominee, Dean was quick to add that Kerry was "only part of the solution" for fixing America. The other part of the solution was, and is, Dean himself.
Last week Dean came to Washington to hold forth on the future of his party. Looking fit and rested, he lacked the Old Testament fire that made him so popular last year. Still, he managed a few zingers, noting that Republicans want a government that "practices division" and, with the invasion of Iraq, "abdicated America's moral responsibility." Also, he insisted that "we're going to take this country back," presumably from the 61 million people who voted for George W. Bush. It goes without saying that Dean doesn't believe Bush's victory has given him a mandate. And he still doesn't like John Kerry: His only allusion to the Massachusetts senator was to say sternly, "We cannot win by being Republican Lite; we've tried it; it does not work."
Dean wasn't interested in talking specifics or ideas. He wanted to talk about "the destination," not "the direction," of the party. But then, specifics have never been his forte. Last summer he insisted that a presidential campaign was not a time to make "speeches about policies, because right now, for the next three and a half months, we've got to talk about politics."
So what is Dean's destination? He says that Democrats must become a "50-state party" again, and must fight for every vote in every county. "There are no red states or blue states," he said, because people in "red" states are actually "hungry for new ideas."
Dean was purposely vague about what these new ideas are, but it is Democrats, not Republicans, who should be alarmed by them. Unlike the other failed presidential candidates from the 2004 race, Dean hit the campaign trail pretty hard last fall--just not for John Kerry. His PAC, renamed Democracy for America, championed the "Dean Dozen": progressive candidates running for offices ranging from county constable to U.S. senator. (Don't be fooled by the name--there were 102 Dean Dozen candidates; 33 of them won.) After raising $52 million for his presidential campaign, Dean has raised only $5 million for his PAC. And he spent more than $600,000 on some 634 state and local campaigns, winning 319 of those races. It's not much, but it's a start.
The Dean plan, then, is to flood the Democratic party apparatus with Dean-supporting progressives at the local level, and then wrest control from the more centrist national Democratic establishment. Dean himself is undecided on how he should do the wresting. After speaking in Washington last week, he attended a meeting of state Democratic leaders in Orlando to audition for the job of chairman of the Democratic National Committee. A Dean aide told the New York Times that "the choice was between running for the chairmanship of the party, or making another bid for the presidency in 2008." As a historical footnote, the Dean-for-DNC movement was first advanced on November 3, by the far-left website Daily Kos.
Dean's destination politics are something of an improvement for the liberal fringe. Just a few months ago liberal activists such as John Sperling were agitating for an explicitly regional Democratic party. Don't "waste money seeking Southern votes that will never add up to one electoral vote," Sperling pleaded in his book The Great Divide: Retro vs. Metro America. "Stop watering down [Democratic party] policies and programs to appeal to a national constituency that no longer exists." At least Dean wants a national campaign.
But his refusal to contend with ideas is telling. Democrats are in the opening skirmishes of what may become a broad, intra-party clash. From the New Republic to the Washington Monthly to the liberal regions of the Internet, an ideological fight is brewing over whether Democrats can--or should--make fighting the war on Islamist terrorism the centerpiece of their agenda. Amidst this clamor, Dean refuses to engage.
Dean is staking his future not on ideas, but on the possession of political power. Yet it's unlikely that the former governor of Vermont will ever hold an important national office. Ruy Teixeira, coauthor of The Emerging Democratic Majority, downplays Dean's chances, saying that "even if [Dean] had good ideas for how to run the DNC . . . as a figurehead for the Democratic party, he would be, shall we say, undesirable."
With no clear vision, few friends in the Democratic establishment, and no political perch, Dean may wonder whether his bubble is about to burst. Again.
Jonathan V. Last is online editor of The Weekly Standard.