For a moment in Washington on Wednesday night, it was 2003 again, and Howard Dean was speaking to a crowd of adoring twenty-somethings–and sounding much as he did when it appeared he would sweep the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary and then the Democratic presidential nomination. Dean, clearly energized by his young supporters, even worked himself up into one of those “and then we’re going to Washington D.C. to take back the White House!” rhetorical exercises that gave him so much trouble as his campaign was collapsing. “Piece by piece, bit by bit, vote by vote,” he shouted at one point last night, “door by door, state by state, legislative district by legislative district, election by election, we are going to take this country back!”
The crowd loved it. But there was also an unmistakable sense of nostalgia among some of the Deaniacs who came to the Capitol City Brewing Company, a brew pub in a massive old federal building not far from the U.S. Capitol, to see their hero. Yes, they were happy that he is just days away from becoming chairman of the Democratic National Committee. But they remember when it seemed he might be president. One slight, somewhat forlorn young man wore a faded PEOPLE-POWERED HOWARD! SLEEPLESS SUMMER TOUR t-shirt as he watched the former Vermont governor speak.
Other Deaniacs were exultant, sort of, about Dean’s impending takeover of the DNC.
“We won!” said one.
“We finally got a victory party!” said another.
“Yeah, ’cause everybody else dropped out,” said a third, referring to Frost, Webb, Fowler, Roemer, and the rest of Dean’s former rivals for the DNC post.
Dean’s speech began on a self-effacing note. “First of all, no congratulations allowed tonight,” he said, “because I remember Iowa and three days before Iowa”–a reference to the time just before his presidential campaign’s disintegration in the caucuses.
But the crowd didn’t want self-effacement. They wanted the old Dean. “GIVE ‘EM HELL, HOWARD!” yelled one woman.
Dean smiled. “I’m trying to be restrained in my new role here in Washington,” he answered. “I’m looking for a three-piece suit.” Then he started laughing. “Fat chance,” he said.
Dean had barely begun to speak when he introduced a guest for the evening, his fellow Vermonter, Sen. Jim Jeffords. When Jeffords walked onstage, the crowd began yelling, “Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!” apparently in gratitude for Jeffords’s 2001 defection from the Republican party that gave Democrats control of the Senate for 18 months.
“I made a switch a while back,” Jeffords said, to more cheers. He switched, he said, in part because he was hoping that a Democrat like Howard Dean would win the White House in 2004. “Well, that didn’t happen,” Jeffords added. “But you know what? It’s going to happen next time!”
After Jeffords left, Dean began to outline his plans for the party. And indeed, as his supporters wanted, the old Howard Dean began to emerge. If any Democrats hoped his DNC agenda might differ substantively from the Dean presidential campaign, and that it might include gestures of moderation, they were probably disappointed. Instead, Dean’s crowd-pleasing message could be summarized in three words: We won’t change.
There is, Dean said, “room for a strong progressive voice” in the party. And he left little doubt that it would be his.
“I was asked in Atlanta, ‘How are we going to talk about our faith?’” Dean said. “And I said, ‘I’m happy to learn how to talk about our faith, but we ought not to change our faith…We need to talk about who we are as Democrats, and we need to be proud to be Democrats every step of the way.”
“It is not a mark of shame to support organized labor,” Dean said, adding that Democrats ought to stand up and say so. He called for national health care to equal that “in Britain and France and Germany and Japan and Costa Rica”–a line from his old stump speech. And he spoke of national security in terms of the United States building better relations with other countries–making just one passing reference to U.S. military strength.
That was the message Dean’s young supporters had come to hear, and Dean found himself speaking over fans chanting “Dean! Dean! Dean! Dean! Dean!”
On the political front, Dean frankly conceded that Democrats were beaten in the 2004 voter turnout race, which for a time believed they would dominate. “It is not enough, as we discovered in the last election, to bring 14,000 people in from another state to knock on doors,” Dean said, referring to the massive turnout efforts led by the Democratic 527 group America Coming Together. Republicans, Dean told the crowd, did a better job because they did not rely on paid out-of-staters to get out the vote. “They had people from their neighborhoods knocking on their neighbors’ doors,” Dean said, making it clear that Democrats would try to imitate that strategy in 2008.
After his speech, Dean stepped outside to give another talk to the overflow crowd that was waiting outside the Brewing Company. “I want you to turn around and look behind you,” he told them, pointing to the brightly lit Capitol building. “After 2006, we’re going to make major strides toward regaining control of that building, and in 2008 we’re gonna have it. And in 2008, they’ll be a Democrat walking up Pennsylvania Avenue to the other end.”