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Would Howard Dean bring new vision for Democrats in a DNC chair bid?

The former Vermont governor and DNC chair says he's back – and plans to organize Democrats nationwide, while focusing on the young. Win or lose, the DNC election may be the first step toward addressing the party's identity crisis.

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    Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean speaks during the second day of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia in July. In the wake of Donald Trump’s victory in Tuesday’s election, Mr. Dean is announcing a bid to head up the Democratic Party, a post he held during the Bush administration.
    J. Scott Applewhite/AP/File
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Howard Dean is back. After the Democrats’ surprise loss at every level of government on Tuesday night, he wants to reorganize the Democratic Party – and re-energize the base.

The former governor of Vermont, who ran the Democratic National Committee between 2005 and 2009 after losing his primary bid for the presidency in 2004, announced Thursday that he plans to run for re-election. Governor Dean is one of many calling for new Democratic leadership as the party works to understand what went wrong for Hillary Clinton’s campaign and grapples with how it can move forward. Appealing to Millennials is also a core part of his platform.

Democrats seem to agree that change is necessary. But Dean may not be the face that they want to put on their rebranding. Though he was a core member of the progressive movement during the early 2000s, Dean may now be seen as too much of an “establishment” candidate. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I) of Vermont, whose primary campaign energized many Democrats, has thrown his support behind Rep. Keith Ellison (D) of Minnesota, who co-chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

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Representative Ellison will fight against "the political establishment and billionaire class," Sanders wrote in an email to supporters, adding, "his experience and perspective would be key to leading the fight against Trump."

The DNC is in charge of the operations of the Democratic Party. It aims to support Democratic candidates up and down the ballot by promoting the party’s platform, raising money for campaigns, and hiring staff for field operations.

But this election cycle the DNC has been in turmoil since the primaries. Hacked emails suggested that former chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz had discussed ways to undermine Senator Sanders’ candidacy and support former Secretary Clinton, leading to her resignation just after the party's Philadelphia convention in July. Interim chair Donna Brazile, a long-time Democratic operative, made headlines after another round of hacks indicated that she had shared debate questions with the Clinton campaign while an on-air commentator for CNN.

For many voters, this kind of behavior is representative of an “establishment” they dislike. Sanders, who ran as an “outsider” focused on working people, garnered 43 percent of votes in the Democratic primary. Donald Trump rode anti-establishment rhetoric – notably the slogan “Make America Great Again” – to victory, even though 60 percent of voters told exit pollsters they didn’t believe he was qualified to be president.

As the search for a new DNC chair begins, then, finding a candidate from outside the “establishment” is likely to be a priority. Without a Democratic president in the White House, open elections will decide the party’s next leader. 

It’s an opportunity for Democrats to shift direction, both symbolically and practically. And they’re looking in the direction of Sanders-style populism as the answer to Trump. After Clinton’s loss, some suggested that Sanders could have won the election for Democrats by rallying working-class voters alongside Millennials.

Sanders had a huge base of grass-roots supporters who contributed to his campaign. They’ll be there for Democrats “if there’s a party to believe in,” he told The Washington Post.

“You’re going to need a DNC that is not just a money collector and employment agency for consultants and pollsters. They have to be advocates, and not just conduits. The DNC should be both an organizing tool and an advocacy tool,” said Rep. Raul M. Grijalva (D) of Arizona, echoing Sanders, in an interview with the Post.

Dean shares many of these ideas and values.

“I intend to go coast to coast organizing every kid in this country who believes in the future and tell them that they have a responsibility and they better get involved and they better get involved now,” he told Bloomberg.

At a breakfast sponsored by The Christian Science Monitor in 2011, he blasted the Washington “insiders” at the top of the Obama administration for treating progressives – and ordinary Americans – with “contempt.” 

“You don’t treat people like you know everything and they don’t,” he said.

Most of the progressive movement, historically Dean’s core constituency, appears to be backing Representative Ellison, however. Ellison will announce whether he is running for DNC chair on Monday, but choosing him is seen as a clear anti-Trump statement (particularly because Ellison is Muslim). Dean is not exactly the face of diversity, and has ties to the Democratic establishment.

Ultimately, Dean says, it doesn’t matter who wins. He and Sanders agree that the role of the new party chair is the same regardless: to forge a new vision for the country that Americans can believe in, and win elections for Democrats.

“This is an issue of getting the job done. We need to win,” Dean told Bloomberg.

Reorganizing the party now could have substantial influence on the outcome of future elections. Some credit the Republican National Committee, which improved its ground game dramatically after Romney’s 2012 loss, with helping Mr. Trump to victory.

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