By most accounts, Howard Dean has one viable campaign left in him. After his unsuccessful bid for the Democratic party’s nomination, Dean turned attention to his Internet fundraising network and the world of cable-network punditry. It was widely assumed the former governor would next bide his time for a semcond White House run in 2008.
Instead, Dean now finds himself the likely frontrunner in a field of candidates hoping to succeed Terry McAuliffe as chairman of the Democratic party. For a party lacking majorities across the spectrum, it’s the closest a Democrat can come to a position of national leadership. However, Dean’s ascension to replace onetime nemesis McAuliffe is far from assured. He faces competition from several party regulars, possibly including McAuliffe himself. What’s more, should Dean openly declare his candidacy to head the DNC, his White House aspirations are effectively over. Out of fear that a possible DNC chair would use the position as a launching pad for a 2008 White House run, DNC members have specified that a candidate must guarantee to fulfill a four-year term. And of course, should Dean lose the race for DNC Chair, his credibility as a national candidate would be exhausted.
Dean’s fledging effort already bears a striking similarity to his failed primary campaign. Dean seems to have the support of party faithful while facing his most strident opposition from his party’s leadership. New Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi have already indicated their support for Dean’s strongest opponent, recently ousted Texas Congressman Martin Frost.
So, who is backing Dean’s candidacy? He continues to maintain a broad umbrella of support. Pennsylvania Congressmen John Murtha is actively lobbying DNC members to back Dean’s candidacy. And Murtha is not what you would call a typical Deaniac. He was one of the most prominent and early supporters of Iraq’s liberation. Even lawmakers who do not support Dean’s bid say Murtha’s endorsement shows the former Vermont governor’s image rehabilitating with rank-and-file Democratic House members and increases his prospects of leading the party. Murtha has penned a letter to his state’s seven DNC delegates, which reads in part: “I am not with [Dean] on all the issues, but he understands the party’s problems, what we need to do and how to get there. And he has executive experience. … A lot of people in the party don’t understand just where we are.”
It’s true that Dean is the only DNC candidate with executive experience. Along with serving as Vermont’s governor for more than a decade, Dean completed a generally well-received tenure as head of the Democratic Governors Association. While most will remember Dean’s “scream” moment and subsequent burnout after the Iowa caucuses, his campaign record has been one of nearly unanimous success. And while Dean and Frost are both coming off losing campaigns, it was Frost who was actually voted out of office. What’s more, Dean exceeded expectations, elevating himself from the bottom of the Democratic field to become his party’s frontrunner in less than a year.
Dean and nearly a dozen other DNC hopefuls congregated this weekend in Atlanta for the Southern Regional Conference Forum. While describing himself as a “Self-professed Vermont Yankee,” Dean also sought to assure those in attendance that he would not write-off the South if elected. The former doctor’s prescription was not detailed, but direct, “You want to know my southern strategy? Show up.” Pro-life, former Congressman Tim Roemer brought the closest offering of true reform to the table, telling those in attendance, “I believe the Democratic party can’t have a litmus test on social issues, whether it be abortion, guns or gay marriage.” Unfortunately, the crowd did not seem to share the 9/11 Commission member’s sentiments.
Meanwhile, DC residents get their first preview of “Scream 2″ this week, when the website DraftHoward.com begins airing a pro-Dean television spot in the area. The group claims to have gathered 10,000 signatures on Dean’s behalf. The text of the advertisement reads as follows: “For generations, Democrats have moved America forward, and now we must do it again. As the first step, we ask the DNC to choose Howard Dean as the next party chair. He will work with our leaders and the grassroots to rebuild the party. Join us at DraftHoward.com.”
Dean’s most immediate obstacle is also perhaps his most unexpected. Reportedly, several members of the Democratic leadership are asking Terry McAuliffe to extend his tenure as chair for at least another 12 months. The Washington Post, ABC News, the Associated Press, and other news organizations have been contacted by sources within the party who attest to this bewildering statement. Reid has apparently not only failed to nix the idea but has even tacitly encouraged McAuliffe should a frontrunner for the post not quickly emerge. Reportedly, among the most vocal of the pro-McAuliffe crowd is New York Senator Charles Schumer. A number of senior Democrats, including Reid and Schumer, met with McAuliffe last week in an attempt to persuade him to stay. Democratic Governors Association Chair Bill Richardson added fuel to the fire by noting his group has not yet rallied around a candidate. Though his response is not yet known, McAuliffe has resisted such offers in the past.
Regardless of which route the Democrats take, their road ahead is uncharted and filled with potential obstacles. Liberals are now left to choose between a potentially unstable emotional leader, a recently ousted office holder and an already proven failure in the post. Envy is not the first word that comes to mind.
–Eric Pfeiffer is senior writer for the National Journal’s “Hotline”.