One flock, many shepherds

Dean wants to lead Democrats, but do Democrats want him?

After Howard Dean spent 45 minutes last Friday revving up a few hundred of his loyal supporters in a Midtown office building, he disappeared into a conference room to huddle with Bobby Kahn. Kahn is chairman of Georgia's Democratic Party, and he is also one of the 447 party officials nationwide who will vote in February on the next chairman of the Democratic National Committee. Dean wants the job, and he was looking for Kahn's vote.

Last November's Republican shellacking — in races from president all the way down to dogcatcher, it seems — has left Democrats convulsing like a trout on a dock. With Terry McAuliffe on his way out as national chair, seven candidates have emerged, each hoping to take his place. The DNC chairman is spokesman for the party, and his main job is to get Democrats elected. McAuliffe's successor will inherit a party that knows how to raise money but has been a spectacular failure at winning crucial elections.

That Dean has the best name recognition of the seven candidates is not necessarily working in his favor; while the idea of him heading up the Democratic Party delights his followers, it scares the bejesus out of those Democrats who believe that giving the chairmanship to Dean would be like handing Grandma the keys to the Lexus after she's been declared legally blind.

Dean, after all, got painted early on in the 2004 presidential race as the liberal candidate, the one who, as Vermont governor, made his state the first in the union guaranteeing legal protections to gay couples in civil unions. At campaign stops, Dean would introduce himself as representing the "Democratic wing of the Democratic Party."

And yet Dean has always resisted easy labeling. Even though he signed the civil union bill as Vermont governor, he was also an advocate for gun owners. "A lot of the nonsense that was written about the campaign was about the spins put on by the other candidates running against me for the Democratic presidential nomination," Dean told CL. "I am what I am. I don't buy labeling and I say what I believe."

Nevertheless, Dean has adjusted his stump speech to reflect the new realities. Last Friday, speaking to members of Georgia for Democracy — the group that began as Georgia for Dean — Dean at once distanced the party from so-called "liberal" issues without disavowing them.

"What George W. Bush did to win this election was set the agenda. We became the party of gay marriage. Well, we're not the party of gay marriage. We are the party of equal rights for every single American. We became the party of abortion rights. Well, we're not the party of abortion rights. We're the party of letting people make up their own minds about what kind of health care they're gonna have, and not have the politicians do it."

At the same time, Dean brought out his fiery side. "Remember, the ordinary Americans — whether it's Georgia or Alabama or Minnesota — are with us. The problem is we don't sell our message very well and [Republicans] get to it first and we bumble and fumble. We get defensive. We shouldn't do that. Never apologize for believing what you believe in."

Dean has been spent the last few months calling and writing the voting members of the party who will pick the next chairman. But Kahn, for his part, remained uncommitted even after meeting with Dean for 20 minutes on Friday, while Dean would describe the discussion only as "cordial."

Kahn said the political philosophy of the chairman, whoever he turns out to be, isn't that important in the long run. "The political philosophy of the party is set by the elected officials," he said. "I don't think by electing one of these candidates [for chairman] over another we're a liberal party or a conservative party."

And indeed on Saturday, when all seven chairman hopefuls gathered at a hotel near the airport for a regional caucus attended by Democrats throughout the South, each spoke about ways to recapture the moderate voters who turned to Bush in 2004. In the South, Dean said, his philosophy was simple: Show up. States like Georgia were merely places Bush and Kerry flew over on their way between Florida and Ohio.

Would-be chairman Tim Roemer, a former Indiana congressman, said that Bush won 97 of the 100 fastest-growing counties in 2004. Asked in what way Democrats fell short in the 2004 election, Roemer said they failed to give Americans a reason to feel safer in a post-9/11 world.

And even Dean, perhaps the most secular of presidential candidates in recent years, said the party needs to talk more about God. "We're the more Christian party. Jesus walked among the least among us and I didn't see any of those country club people doing that when they were running for office."

The new DNC chairman will be elected Feb. 12.