In the midst of what promises to be a heated race for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination, Democratic National Committee Chairman and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean ’71 urged Yalies to focus on fundamental political issues and avoid getting steeped in a politicized us-versus-them mentality.
The one-time front-runner in the 2004 Democratic primaries spoke Thursday about his 50-State Strategy, which aims to build Democratic organizations in every voting precinct in the U.S., including those in predominantly Republican states. Dean, who majored in political science at Yale, delivered the keynote address at a Yale Political Union debate on Thursday evening in addition to holding discussions at a Saybrook Master’s Tea and an event hosted by the Yale Law Democrats earlier in the day.
Members of the press were barred from Thursday’s events, but students who attended the YPU debate said Dean spoke mainly about campaigns, arguing that if a political party wishes to win an election, it must conduct hands-on research and house-to-house canvassing rather than using consumer data to target groups of likely supporters.
Wearing an American flag pin on his suit jacket, Dean laughed along with the crowd in the Law School Auditorium during the introductory speeches of the debate and said he had been warned about the Union’s tradition of pounding and hissing as signs of agreement and disagreement, students said.
In his speech, Dean said Democrats have unfortunately let Republicans assume the role of the sole party interested in protecting “values” by shying away from controversial issues. He said Democrats must instead engage in discussion and debate with evangelicals and residents of “red” states about issues both groups care about — such as the environment and poverty — if the party wishes to win over voters.
In an interview with the News, Dean said he is confident that his strategy will garner Democrats votes in red states.
“The idea that we’re going to put up 30-second ads and that’s going to win a campaign is being rapidly displaced by the idea that you have to be at somebody’s door or on the net asking to hear from them before you tell them to do something for you,” he said.
Democratic victories in the 2006 midterm elections demonstrate the viability of his strategy, Dean said.
Dean’s visit to campus came just a few days after Democratic and Republican candidates announced their fund-raising totals for the first quarter, with Democrats collectively outpacing Republicans and New York Sen. Hillary Clinton leading the pack with $26 million in donations. Dean, who dominated other Democratic candidates in fund-raising at the beginning of the 2004 race by relying heavily on the Internet, said he thinks an early financial edge does not guarantee success at the polls.
“I think that it’s great to have plenty of money but I don’t think that people are ruled out by not being up in the stratosphere,” he said. “It’s too early to tell.”
Dean said he does not yet know who he will vote for in the Democratic primaries.
“That’s a good question,” he said. “I don’t know the answer to that.”
Party of the Left member Justin Kosslyn ’09, who attended the YPU debate, said he appreciated Dean’s discussion of how political parties should present themselves to the public and was impressed by his ability to command the attention of both left-leaning and right-leaning audience members.
“Some people were surprised to find themselves on line to shake his hand afterward,” he said.
Adam Hirst ’10, who is a member of the Conservative Party, said although he thinks Dean’s 50-State plan is overly optimistic, he felt that Dean’s political analysis was more “on the money” than he had expected it to be. Hirst said despite a few snide remarks about Republicans, Dean spoke calmly and seemed to try not to exert a divisive presence.
Students said Dean inadvertently elicited chuckles from the audience during a serious moment in his speech when he listed the red states that the Democrats should focus on because it was reminiscent of the infamous Iowa “Dean Scream” in 2004.
After losing the Democratic primary to Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry ’66 in 2004, Dean founded Democracy for America, a political action committee formed to lend support to liberal Democrats running for political office. He was elected DNC chairman in February 2005. Before becoming Vermont’s governor after the 1991 death of Gov. Richard Snelling, Dean served as the state’s lieutenant governor and as a member of the House of Representatives.
YPU President Daniel Thies ’07 said although the Union had planned for the spring semester to focus less on courting prominent political figures and more on student debate, negotiations for an appearance by the DNC chairman had been in motion since the summer. Thies said despite Dean’s record of impassioned speeches, he did not expect the keynote address to provoke much controversy because of Dean’s leadership position in the DNC.
“He’s acting in his role of DNC chair, so he will be more circumspect because anything could be held against him,” Thies said.
A brief disruption occurred toward the end of his YPU address when a group of students took over the PA system to point out that Dean’s 50-State Strategy left out any mention of Puerto Rico. The students then leapt out of the audience singing the song “America” from the musical “West Side Story” and threw a few colorful pieces of clothing on stage before running out of the auditorium. Students said Dean took the act “extremely well” and even briefly waved one of the articles in the air as a joke.
Dean said he has spoken at Yale on several previous occasions and comes to campus at least twice a year because his son attends the college and his daughter graduated last year.
“Yale did a lot for me,” he said. “It was a very exciting time to be there in the sixties and seventies.”