On Native Ground
DEAN COULDN'T BEAT ENEMIES IN HIS PARTY
by Randolph T. Holhut
American Reporter Correspondent
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- It was a speech he never wanted to make.
In his two decades in Vermont politics, Howard Dean was undefeated. He never had to concede defeat in any of his campaigns. His sense of timing and political luck had always been unusually good.
Until now. Although we knew it was coming, it still was sad to hear Dean say on Feb. 18 that he was ending his campaign for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination.
Those of us in Vermont who've watched Dean in action over the past decade or so were genuinely unfamiliar with the Dean we saw on the campaign trail. The cautious, centrist, fiscally conservative governor we knew was replaced by a passionate, populist firebrand who tapped into the anti-war, anti-Bush mood and built a political movement that shook up the clueless folks in the Washington establishment.
The press still hasn't gotten a handle on what Dean's campaign did with the Internet. Dean's ability to quickly raise massive sums of money from average individuals proved that a candidate didn't have to rely on special interest money and corporate fat cats to fund a campaign.
That proved to be a threat to the Democratic Party apparatchiks, who decided the key to electoral success was to not be too liberal so that the big donors wouldn't get rattled. The party's accomplices in the media also saw Dean as a threat. Years from now, folks will study the news coverage of the Dean campaign as a perfect example of how to take down a candidate with relentlessly negative reporting and imagery.
The Dean campaign tried to do an end-around against the Democratic centrists who wanted a tame establishment candidate, against the sloppy and cowardly reporting of the press and against both the Democrats and the media's chumminess with corporate interests. The Internet provided a way to get Dean's message out to people who've given up on both the Democratic Party and the mainstream media as being agents of change.
There was a reason why so many young people flocked to Dean. He offered an alternative to the tepid, clapped-out, Republican-lite offerings of Democratic Leadership Council-approved candidates like Sens. John Kerry and Joe Lieberman. And Dean's campaign organization wasn't afraid to be a bottom-up movement that gave his supporters more of a role in running things than any previous campaign.
At first, this was done because Dean had little money. But the people who donated their time and talent helped kick-start a new approach to politics - what some have called an "open source" campaign; a two-way collaboration between the candidate's organization and its supporters where ideas and creativity flow both ways.
The twenty-somethings that came of age in a world of file-sharing, chat rooms, instant messaging, blogs and e-mail have begun to shape the political process to the communication processes they were comfortable with. It's not going to supplant the old ways just yet, but what we saw with Dean was a start.
But none of that would have happened without Dean's message of hope. His campaign wasn't about "rage," as the press kept saying. It was about empowerment. Unfortunately, the Democratic establishment is not interested in empowering voters and did everything it could to make sure Dean failed.
I'm hopeful that Dean's plan to use the grassroots base of his campaign to help transform the Democratic Party can work. The biggest mistake the Democrats can make is to dismiss the Dean campaign as a fluke.
Dean proved that you don't need to prostitute yourself before the fat cats to raise enough money to be a credible candidate. He proved that a decentralized campaign is not a bad thing and that giving your supporters more of a say in how things are done can work. That said, we also know that his campaign wasn't flawless. Ultimately, it just wasn't strong enough to beat the folks who back the status quo.
Randolph T. Holhut was a journalist in New England for more than 20 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at email@example.com.