It won’t be a summer of love for Howard Dean, with peace and understanding in short supply.
The Democratic National Committee chairman faces several formidable challenges. Some states are determined to move up the dates of their presidential primaries despite the potential for upending the nomination process, and the party’s convention in Denver in 2008 is already dealing with nettlesome labor and financial woes.
Dean’s biggest test will come next year when the DNC will primarily serve as a shadow campaign operation for the party’s presidential nominee.
But first he must contend with Florida, whose decision to push its primary to Jan. 29 could set off a ripple effect among other states eager to move up as well. The party’s rules and bylaws committee is expected to turn a thumbs down on Florida’s plan at a meeting in Washington on Aug. 25, but that’s not expected to stop Democrats in the state from observing the new primary date.
With the first nominating contests just six months away, the campaigns of Democratic presidential candidates are frustrated with the uncertainty. It has inhibited their ability to craft a strategy for winning the nomination in what already promises to be an unprecedented race because of the plethora of early contests, record-breaking fundraising and an unusually crowded field.
Critics contend that a stronger chairman might have persuaded Florida Democrats to abide by party rules not to jump ahead of Feb. 5 and refuse to participate in the January primary, which was championed by the state’s Republican governor and legislature. Others say Dean did what he could to fight the change, including lobbying Democratic legislators. Ultimately, they said there was little he could do to alter the outcome.
“When it came down to it, our state executive committee said there was zero support for holding anything other than a January 29 primary,” Florida Democratic Party spokesman Mark Bobriski said. “It was a force of nature here — they didn’t want to see Democratic voters disenfranchised.”
For his part, former DNC chairman Don Fowler said states have been poised to upend the primary calendar for years and it was just a matter of time before they succeeded. Regrettably for Dean, it happened on his watch.
“He couldn’t have done anything to make this go away — no national chairman can,” Fowler said. “The folks in the states would just say, ‘Go back to Washington and mind your own business.’”
Then there is Denver, which will host the party’s convention next year — a selection Dean himself has called risky.
The choice has indeed been problematic, mostly because of fundraising challenges and the city’s fractious relationship with organized labor, a key Democratic Party constituency.
Last month, the convention host committee announced it will fall well short of meeting its quarterly fundraising goal. And this spring, the AFL-CIO threatened to force Democrats to abandon Denver after Colorado’s Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter vetoed a bill making it easier to set up all-union workplaces.
Dean declined to be interviewed for this story. His aides note that many of the problems he faces have befallen other party chairmen and that Republicans are coping with similar ones, including a potentially chaotic primary calendar and fundraising for their 2008 convention.
The difference this time, Dean aides argue, is that the Democratic Party will be better prepared for the general election than ever before.
“Governor Dean’s legacy will be to ensure that our nominee will have a strong infrastructure to win the presidency and to truly be a national party,” spokeswoman Karen Finney said.
Underscoring all of this is Dean’s vision for how the party should operate — a vision that has met with resistance from many Democratic leaders.
The former Vermont governor is widely popular with state parties and many grass-roots Democrats, who helped fuel his insurgent 2004 presidential candidacy. But he’s still viewed skeptically by much of the Washington-based political establishment, which challenges him both privately and publicly.
Some of Dean’s most vocal detractors are former advisers to President Clinton, potentially complicating matters between the DNC and Hillary Rodham Clinton, the party’s presidential front-runner. They include strategist James Carville, who once called Dean’s leadership at the DNC “almost Rumsfeldian in its incompetence.”
Dean’s focus has been on strengthening state parties, irking those who believe the DNC’s chief function is to help fund competitive races. The disagreement broke into open warfare in 2006, when Dean clashed over money and strategy with New York Sen. Chuck Schumer and Illinois Rep. Rahm Emanuel, who ran the party’s successful effort to win back control of Congress.
Dean’s so-called “50-state strategy,” which has sent paid organizers in state parties across the country — including heavily Republican stalwarts like Mississippi and Indiana — has been mocked by some as naive and ineffective. And his effort to create a national voter database within the DNC has been challenged by operatives, including Hillary Clinton adviser Harold Ickes, who have created a for-profit company building a competing voter file.
Nationally, the DNC’s fundraising trails that of its GOP counterpart, even as the Democrats’ House and Senate campaign arms have flourished. The DNC has pulled in about $28 million so far this year, compared to more than $46 million for the Republican National Committee.
Still, to Dean’s fans — and there are legions of them — the former Vermont governor has taken a much-needed sledgehammer to a calcified Democratic establishment.
“Among DNC members, there’s just wild enthusiasm for Howard,” said Elaine Kamarck, a former Democratic strategist and professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. “The people he’s upsetting are the Washington-based political class, who make a lot of money making television ads.”
Earlier this year, Kamarck produced an analysis testing whether Dean’s 50-state strategy had helped Democrats win closely contested House seats last year. She concluded that in districts where the DNC had placed operatives, Democratic voter turnout went up measurably beyond the “bounce” Democrats were getting nationally.
Dean hired three new staffers for the Indiana party, for example, including field organizers in two congressional districts that changed hands from Republican to Democrat in 2006.
“We’ve never received the kind of attention and investment from the DNC as we have since Howard Dean became chair,” said Dan Parker, the Indiana Democratic Party chairman. “Before, the DNC only cared about states important for presidential races. Indiana is a very red state, so they ignored us.”