A year ago, Gov. Howard Dean of Vermont decided his campaign for the Democratic nomination for president was over. Dean, by successfully tapping the Democratic anti-war sentiment, had been the frontrunner of the field for months, yet after a disappointing third-place finish in the Iowa caucus, the Dean campaign came “screaming” to a halt. A second-place finish in the New Hampshire primaries and a devastating third place in Wisconsin one year ago tomorrow sealed the fate for Dean’s presidential bid and, on Feb. 18, 2004, Dean announced his withdrawal. These past few months, however, Gov. Dean has made an unlikely political comeback and, last Saturday, the once down-and-out presidential hopeful was elected chairman of the Democratic National Committee.
During the primary season last year, many of my pieces in these pages emphasized the perils of nominating Howard Dean for the presidency, and I still retain my belief that Dean would have been a poor choice for Democrats to put at the top of their 2004 ticket. However, for the job of DNC chairman, I believe Dean — with his conviction, outspokenness and credibility on deficit issues — to be an excellent choice for the Democrats. In fact (forgive the pun), he’s just what the doctor ordered.
In the 2004 elections, Democrats were plagued by an aura of indecisiveness. Republican advertisements continually bombarded Americans through their television sets, reminding voters of Sen. John Kerry’s remarks that he voted for the $87 billion bill to fund American troops before he voted against it. Other people compared Senator Kerry’s intricate, if not more accurate, view of world affairs to President Bush’s simplistic good-versus-evil, us-against-them mentality and came to the conclusion that Bush was more decisive than the “flip-flopper from Massachusetts.” Such sentiments are hardly surprising. As Bill Clinton once succinctly said, “We Democrats have got to be strong … When people feel uncertain, they’d rather have somebody who’s strong and wrong than somebody who’s weak and right.”
Chairman Dean provides an excellent remedy to this perception that Democrats are “flip-floppers.” Although many have criticized Governor Dean’s seeming bullheadedness, such conviction is precisely what Democrats need for success in the 2006 and 2008 election cycles. In the current political atmosphere, with issues such as Islamic fundamentalism, terrorism and weapons of mass destruction (including North Korea’s nuclear threat) remaining salient for the upcoming election cycles, the American people will continue to feel the uncertainty Clinton described. Howard Dean’s steadfastness, coupled with his ability to confront an issue bluntly, will help to establish the Democratic Party as one of strength and strong convictions.
But the greatest benefit to having Howard Dean as DNC chairman lies in his record. For 11 years, from 1991 to 2002, Dean served as governor of Vermont, and for each of these, Gov. Dean never failed to balance a budget. President Bush’s record for balancing budgets while in office, however, is not quite as stellar. Despite having racked up three of the largest deficits in history, President Bush announced in his State of the Union his intent to make his tax cuts permanent and to privatize Social Security with a reform plan estimated to cost trillions of borrowed dollars. With his tremendous credibility on the deficit issue, Dean presents the best possible leadership for the Democrats to challenge President Bush and the Republicans on this point in 2006 and 2008.
Many would rightly argue that Dean’s political style, personal attributes and questionable religious faith are not the best influences for the Democratic Party, as they do not represent the mindset of voters in red states. Several of these arguments, many of which I supported, were made during his unsuccessful presidential bid. Yet critics who make these contentions fail to realize that voters in the 2006 and 2008 elections will not be evaluating Dean, but rather than candidates he helps to field. Dean has had experience in this realm before in the late 1990s when he served as head of the Democratic Governors Association. As head of the DGA, Dean was able to field and propel to victory 20 Democratic candidates, including ones in the red states of Alabama, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia. Critics who believe his politics and image to be wrong for red-state America may be right, but his ability to pick winning candidates is undeniable.
For the last two election cycles, Democrats have been trounced. A lack of coherent message, a paucity of charismatic leaders and scare tactics by their Republican opponents doomed Democrats to failure in the 2002 midterm and 2004 presidential elections. The battles of 2006 and 2008, however, represent a new opportunity. Democrats now need a bold leader to provide credibility and a coherent message. I think they’ve found him in Howard Dean.
Jonathan Menitove is a sophomore in Ezra Stiles College.