First, Democrats should be happy about the way the race for DNC Chair was conducted. In the past, the 447 members of the Democratic National Committee—a fairly representative group of party activists from every state—have rubber stamped candidates picked by big donors and Washington-based Party insiders. No race for DNC Chairman has been contested since 1988, and even then very few Democrats actually participated in the contest.
This year, candidates for Chairman participated in five public forums and spoke themselves hoarse at public and private events across the country. Candidates from across the spectrum—from former Republican financiers to, well, Howard Dean—ran serious campaigns. Dr. Dean himself was convinced to run by an outpouring of grassroots support long before the campaign for DNC Chair began. Repeated attempts by Party leaders to control the process were rejected by a motley coalition of bloggers, state party leaders and Democratic activists. Two of the most prominent candidates in this year’s race were under the age of 45, something that would never have happened in previous races. Among all of them, Dr. Dean has the best combination of skills and clout to lead the DNC, but this year’s race for DNC Chair produced a better slate of candidates and a better process for choosing the winner than any previous election.
During his Presidential campaign, Dr. Dean showed an incredible ability to excite voters at the grassroots and raise small donations from a broad base of voters. At the DNC, Dean will have a chance to put his small dollar fundraising skills to work. During the election season, the Democrats made major strides in their low dollar fundraising ability, but the Republicans still out-raised the Democrats in overall dollars. Democrats were forced to rely on independent “527” organizations to make up the difference in traditional fundraising. These organizations exploited a loophole in federal election law that effectively nullifies recent campaign finance reforms. Dean’s ability to raise hard money may allow Democrats to compete with Republicans without relying on ethically and legally questionable organizations like 527s.
This year’s race for DNC Chair was a referendum on the role of state and local Democratic organizations. Every candidate for Chairman paid lip-service to empowering state party organizations, but only Dr. Dean has the experience to truly give power to local activists. During his presidential primary campaign, Dr. Dean used the internet and a unique style of organizing to enable his supporters to plan and execute their own strategies. His supporters spontaneously organized community service projects, rallies and rock concerts. By basing control of his campaign on the grassroots, Dr. Dean gave his campaign a vitality that, for a time, mobilized and excited voters who wouldn’t otherwise have participated in Presidential politics. Dr. Dean can reinvigorate the Democratic Party by giving local Party activists the resources and the freedom to organize their friends and neighbors.
Dr. Dean’s critics have already started predicting the demise of the Democratic Party. Robert Novak, that fast friend of the Democratic Party, claims that Dean will make the Democratic Party too liberal to win national elections. We have yet to hear that any voter supported George W. Bush because they didn’t like Terry McAuliffe (the DNC’s current Chair), but even if the DNC Chair is as important as Novak seems to think, Democrats have nothing to fear from the Doctor. Dr. Dean’s proposals have emphasized empowering local activists and finding new ways of raising small dollar donations, not moving the Democratic Party to the left. He did not run as a radical candidate, and he will have little opportunity to make the Democratic Party more radical.
Dr. Dean’s short stint in national politics has shown that he is the kind of leader who can build a new Democratic Party, a Party that relies on grassroots enthusiasm, not big money donors. The Democratic Party needs a change. Dr. Dean has the passion and the experience to make it so.