New York Times Magazine
There was a moment last summer when Howard Dean’s tenure as chairman of the Democratic Party seemed on the verge of a colossal failure. The party’s nomination process, which was supposed to have been settled by March, was devolving into a rolling civil war without end, and Democrats grumbled that Dean — who might have stepped in and sorted out the mess before it got to the con-vention floor — seemed reluctant to intervene. Of all the various party entities that raise money, only Dean’s national committee was getting clobbered by Republicans. For years, Democratic Congressional leaders had been mocking Dean’s “50-state strategy” — his plan to rebuild local parties in every state, especially in rural areas of the South and West, by hiring organizers rather than saving that money for television ads in perennial battlegrounds like Florida and Ohio. Now they whispered that his incompetence might cost them the White House.
When I spoke to him on the day after Barack Obama swept into the White House with the largest Congressional Democratic majorities since the 1970s, Dean, characteristically defiant, refused to admit to feeling vindicated. “Everyone asks me that,” he said. “Vindication is not an emotion that ever touches me, because I don’t have any doubts when I’m doing it.” But if election night stamped Obama indelibly into the pages of American history, then Dean’s place in that history, too, should probably be revisited. Very nearly discarded by his contemporaries as a spectacularly flawed presidential candidate and a bumbling chairman, Dean may well be remembered instead as the flinty figure who bridged the distance between one generation of Democrats and the next, the man who first gave voice to liberal fury and tapped transformative technologies at the dawn of the century — and then channeled all of it into rebuilding the party’s grass-roots apparatus. Just as Ronald Reagan and the conservatives learned from Barry Goldwater, just as Franklin Roosevelt and the New Dealers took inspiration from reformers like Robert La Follette, so, too, did Obama and the new progressives in America evolve from Howard Dean.
Skeptics will argue, of course, that Dean’s stewardship of the party had little to do with the Democratic rout. After all, conservative states like Virginia, Indiana and North Carolina were in play principally because Republicans had so badly mismanaged the government and because of an economic collapse that was, to be a little crass, remarkably fortunate. And in Obama, the party fielded a nominee this time who was, for all his lack of experience, vastly more compelling than his most recent predecessors on the ticket.
And yet, it was Dean, back when Obama was still serving in the Illinois State Senate, who first introduced his party to the idea that, in the Internet age, a campaign could be built from the ground up, that door-to-door organizing could matter more than TV ads. And it was Dean who argued forcefully, as chairman, that Democrats in this new era could compete in the reddest of states and build a truly national party at a time when others in the party were belittling rural voters and agitating for a complete withdrawal from the South. Now the Republicans are the ones who find themselves reduced to regional influence, their shrinking Congressional delegations confined mostly to the South and West. (Remarkably, not a single New England Republican now remains in the House.) Dean didn’t create the conditions that made that reversal possible, but he always said that if you wanted to be in a position to take advantage of favorable circumstances, then you had to at least have basic party infrastructures in place. “Chance favors the prepared mind,” Dean told me, not for the first time. “You show up, you keep working and hopefully you catch a break.”
That he did. Dean inherited a party so dispirited after its defeat in 2004 that few other Democrats of note expressed the least interest in running it; the party he relinquishes this January, making way for whomever Obama chooses to succeed him, will firmly control all three power centers in Washington, brandishing a decisive governing mandate for the first time since 1992. (Obama’s 53 percent of the popular vote hardly qualifies as the “landslide” that some commentators said it was but, as Andrei Cherny noted on Huffington Post, Obama is only the fourth Democrat in American history to win at least 51 percent of the vote.) The important question for Democrats to consider now is what that mandate actually means.
Even before the country voted, as the contours of a Democratic wave began to come into focus, a story line of the election was taking hold among Democrats in Washington: repulsed by the incompetence of the Bush administration, American voters had at last renounced the conservative ethos of the Reagan-Bush era and had moved, en masse, to embrace the Democratic Party and its agenda. Polls showed, after all, that the number of people identifying themselves as Republicans had fallen sharply, while the ranks of those calling themselves Democrats had swelled. Surveys indicated that voters, in the wake of the credit crisis, had warmed to the idea of activist government. In fact, the election results, and especially the pivotal Democratic victories in Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada, seemed to validate the influential theory of the “emerging Democratic majority,” advanced by the liberal political analysts Ruy Teixeira and John B. Judis in 2002. Combing through demographic trends, Teixeira and Judis hypothesized then that increasing numbers of nonwhite and new-economy voters would soon transform the country’s electoral landscape and create new opportunities for Democrats, most notably in the West.
The cautionary note here, for jubilant Democrats, is that there is little reason to believe that the electoral trend in their favor actually reflects any widespread ideological shift. If you only look at numerical majorities, it might well seem that the story of the last 20 years in American politics is one in which voters have swerved erratically from one ideological pole to the next, embracing a harsh kind of conservatism in 1994 and then a resurgent liberalism in 2006. In reality, though, the American public doesn’t seem to move very much in its basic attitudes about government, which have remained mostly pragmatic and predictable; simply put, people tend to want a little more government when times are tough and a little less when things are going well. The number of voters who identified themselves in exit polls as conservative, liberal or moderate remained virtually unchanged between 2004 and 2008 — and in fact, those numbers have been more or less steady for decades.
The real trend line in our politics — from Ross Perot and Bill Clinton in 1992 to Obama this year — speaks not to any change in governing philosophy but to a growing frustration with incumbency and dogma, a sense that both parties are more concerned with perpetuating their own power than they are with adapting government to a fast-changing world. Voters aren’t really identifying more closely with one party or another when they periodically revolt; they are simply defining themselves against whoever happens to be in charge at the moment.
Perhaps because he is too young to have lived in a world where party affiliations were as unshakable as religious beliefs, or perhaps because he has spent so little of his life in Washington, Obama seems intuitively to understand this dynamic. (His chief strategist, David Axelrod, has long understood it, too.) Obama’s entire campaign was based on the rather amorphous idea of “change” and postpartisan ideals, on an indictment of the two-party status quo, more than on any ideological argument about the role of government. It now falls to Obama, as it did to Bill Clinton in 1993, to pursue a realist’s agenda while somehow restraining the forces in his own party — powerful liberal committee chairmen, sprawling interest groups — who would overreach, attempting to make of the party’s mandate something that it is not.
One significant difference between then and now, however, lies in the nature of the tensions in the Democratic coalition. Clinton’s party was riven, predictably enough, by geography and ideology; like Jimmy Carter before him, Clinton tried to straddle an ever-widening gap between Northern and coastal liberals whose ideal of government remained expansive and those Southern and Western Democrats who embraced a more centrist or even conservative philosophy. This was, of course, the same basic divide that underlaid the Democrats’ governing coalition since Franklin Roosevelt.
Obama’s landscape is less familiar. Surely there will be some residual clashes between left and center in Obama’s party, but his real challenge isn’t so much ideological as it is generational, a reconciling of worldviews forged in contrasting American moments. Obama’s candidacy was propelled chiefly by groups that are emerging in American politics. He represents the new and ascendant service-industry unions, for instance, as opposed to the industrial-age unions that supported Hillary Clinton. He speaks more to younger voters — the 40-and-under crowd — than to their boomer parents, more to African-American families than to their leaders in churches and in Congress, who came to him only grudgingly. Obama ignites more passion among the millions of lesser-engaged, text-messaging Americans who signed up for accounts on his site (and who, in many cases, volunteered for their first political cam-paign) than he does among the party’s older, stalwart activists.
This younger Democratic base stands less on loyalty to institutions generally, and that includes the Democratic Party itself. These voters represent a generation of Americans reared in the cynical, detached environment after Watergate rather than in the idealist, more doctrinaire atmosphere of the ’60s. To keep his party unified, Obama will have to embody this modern, less-partisan ethos while at the same time respecting the power and conviction of an older set of Democrats who nurture a less-flexible liberal ideal and who aren’t yet ready to step aside. Obama’s task is to somehow move away from reflexively partisan solutions — no trade deals, no charter schools, no entitlement reform — even as he defers to a generation of leaders for whom ideology and par-tisanship are the guiding paradigms of political thought.
Voters will be watching to see how Obama achieves this balancing act within his own party — and none more so, perhaps, than those conservative voters who are waiting to see whether this young Democrat will really deliver the systemic change he prom-ised. In a conversation not long before the end of the campaign, Obama told me he understood that these voters didn’t yet feel they knew him and that, even if they voted for him because of their economic jitters, their support would represent little more than an opportunity for him to prove, as president, that he could move beyond the partisan divisions of the last generation. Howard Dean was right to insist that a Democrat in the online age could redraw the political map, and for that he deserves more than passing mention in subsequent histories of the time. But the job of creating a more lasting realignment always falls — as it did in the eras of the New Dealers and the conservative movement — to a president with the vision and temperament to pull the country forcibly into the future. For Obama and his party, the only 50-state strategy now is to govern as if they mean it.