Is It Time to Believe? Bill Clinton Rebuilt the Democratic Party in Crucial Ways. but Howard Dean Is Rebuilding It in a Way Clinton Missed. Party Insiders Would Do Well to Make Their Peace with It

By Tomasky, Michael | The American Prospect, January 2004 | Go to article overview

Is It Time to Believe? Bill Clinton Rebuilt the Democratic Party in Crucial Ways. but Howard Dean Is Rebuilding It in a Way Clinton Missed. Party Insiders Would Do Well to Make Their Peace with It


Tomasky, Michael, The American Prospect


AS DEMOCRATS IN IOWA AND BEYOND PREPARE TO START voting, we can look back and identify four distinct phases of this nascent presidential campaign: the early, we-get to know-them phase; the preliminary nuts and bolts phase, concerned with which candidate hired which professionals; the moneychase phase; and, most recently, the first winnowing phase, when observers felt they finally knew enough about the play of things to start making predictions.

These phases have had their distinct characteristics, but they have one thing in common: In each of them, Howard Dean was prematurely and mistakenly written off. In phase one he was too abrasive; in phase two he'd hired second-raters; in phase three he couldn't possibly raise big money; and in the last phase he'd peaked too early. The reality, instead, is that he and campaign manager Joe Trippi have run a dazzlingly brilliant and innovative campaign. Al Gore's imprimatur or no, he could still be "stopped"--other candidates in the field have positive attributes, and voters haven't cast a ballot yet. But Dean just seems to get stronger every week, challenging not only the laws of politics but of Isaac Newton himself. Why?

LET'S REWIND THE TAPE TO DECEMBER 1988. THE DEMOcratic Party had hit rock bottom. It had just lost its third presidential election in a row, and this time with a candidate who'd been 17 points ahead in the polls as late as August. The party was riven by ideological divisions. And it was losing the memory of itself as a vibrant organism--no Democrat under 35 or so in 1988 had a living memory of a truly successful Democratic president. Finally, there was no clear "corner" who could save it, certainly not t hat gabby governor from Arkansas who jabbered on and on at the 1988 convention podium to such an extent that he became a national curiosity, invited on The Tonight Show to explain himself (yes yes: publicity was the point).

It turned out that Bill Clinton was the corner the part needed. He rebuilt it; indeed, he saved it. But for the purpose of thinking clearly about the Dean phenomenon, it's crucial to think about the particular ways in which Clinton rebuilt the party, and one way in which he did not.

Clinton rebuilt the party ideologically. He shed it of some of its more hidebound ways. Whether one agrees with, say his support for welfare reform or NAFTA, it must be said that those moves took some political courage insofar as there wasn't much of a natural constituency within the Democratic Party for his positions. Moving something as large as a political party off a marker on which it has stood for a generation or two is no easy thing.

He also rebuilt the party as a fund-raising machine. This, as we know, has had both its good and its ill effects. But what ever the downsides, this rebuilding, too, was necessary. From the stock-market boom to the exorbitant price of gourmet mustards, the 1990s culture was about money. Politics was not immune. The Democrats, always cash-poor compared with the Republicans and especially so after losing three presidential elections in a row--needed to join the financial big leagues to be able to compete.

But there is one way in which Clinton did not rebuild the Democratic Party: from the ground up. Beyond rhetoric, and the occasional action, he didn't really make it a party of the people. He and Al Gore did energize a youth vote in 1992, and he made millions of voters who'd been disaffected feel comfortable voting Democratic again, bringing important states like New Jersey back into the Democratic camp.

But he never situated the party as an entity that represented the aspirations of its people--its most committed members. Back to Newton: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. And the reaction to bringing the party to the center and allying it more closely with corporate donors was that the people at the bottom of the totem pole felt a little detached. …

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