The Rise and Fall of Howard Dean

Can the Democratic Party be Pulled to the Left?

The recent Democratic presidential primaries generated record turnouts and far more interest than usual. The highlight of this intense race was the spectacular emergence of Howard Dean’s anti-war, “anti-establishment” campaign and its equally stunning collapse.

Dean’s insurgent campaign made it seem like it might be possible, as some on the left advocate, to pull the Democratic Party back to the left to represent its traditional voting base – workers, people of color, women, LGBT people, and environmentalists. Does the collapse of his campaign prove that a “radical” candidate could never get elected?

Howard Dean’s surge of support stemmed from his blistering attacks on Bush, the war on Iraq, and the Washington, D.C. political establishment. He regularly accused the Democratic Party of having moved so far to the right that they were hardly distinguishable from Republicans. “I am from the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party,” Dean declared.

This message energized the Democratic Party’s traditional voting base, which is tired of being ignored by the party’s conservative leadership, and of watching their Congressional representatives vote for many of Bush’s right-wing policies.

Dean signed up over 600,000 supporters and raised more money faster than any Democratic presidential candidate in history, primarily from ordinary people over the Internet. Over 500,000 people donated an average of under $100 throughout his campaign.

While Dean used a lot of radical-sounding, populist rhetoric, his actual policies were quite conservative. As Vermont’s Governor for 12 years, he consistently carried out Clinton-style, fiscally conservative policies that benefited big corporations at the expense of workers and the environment.

Dean supported continuing the occupation of Iraq, the 1991 Iraq war, Bush’s “war on terror,” and the invasion of Afghanistan. He regularly promised that his top priority would be to balance the budget (by which he meant slashing socially necessary programs like healthcare and education, rather than the military).

When Dean came under attack for being too “left-wing,” he responded by emphasizing his right-wing credentials in an attempt to prove that he would be a safe, reliable candidate for Corporate America.

Despite this, the right wing of the Democratic Party establishment believed that Dean was dragging the party too far to the left, undermining their electability. They also feared that Dean would raise the expectations of workers and young people that they would not be able to satisfy, setting the stage for mass struggles that would spin out of the Democrats’ control.

In response, a key section of the Democratic leadership launched a ferocious campaign to crush Dean, putting more effort into attacking Dean than Bush! Aiding and abetting them was the corporate media, which seized upon Dean’s every mistake, ultimately destroying his campaign.

Political analyst William Greider remarked: “In forty years of observing presidential contests, I cannot remember another major candidate brutalized so intensely by the media, with the possible exception of George Wallace… The doctor stuck his chin out, and he got his head knocked off” (The Nation, 2/19/04).

Was Dean Unelectable?

The Democratic establishment and the corporate media claimed that Dean was too radical to be electable, which would allow Bush in for another four years. Underlying this claim is an assumption that most ordinary Americans are satisfied, comfortable, middle-class consumers near the center of the political spectrum.

However, if this were true, then why was Dean so popular when he was perceived as a radical challenger to Bush? How come Dean’s popularity declined once he started moderating his message? And why were the more conservative Democratic candidates forced to adopt Dean’s populist rhetoric to catch up with him?

Contrary to the media’s assumption that ordinary people are satisfied with politics as usual, the explosion of support for Dean revealed the growing discontent against Bush, the Iraq war, the exportation of decent-paying jobs, corporate scandals, and the healthcare crisis. The enthusiastic response that Dean received shows the potential for building a powerful anti-establishment, anti-war political movement.

However, faced with a crude choice between Bush and a Democrat, Democratic voters tended to opt for the most “electable” Democrat — not their preferred candidate, but the one seen to have (or said by the media and the Democratic leaders to have) the broadest appeal. This shows what a vicious trap the corporate-dominated, two-party system is.

“Bush has got to go,” said a single black mom and home health-care aide. “I don’t care how, I don’t care why, but he has got to go.” Similarly, an architect explained, “I voted for Kerry because they say he can beat Bush – anything to get Bush out” (New York Times, 3/3/04).

John Kerry was able to position himself as the primary beneficiary of this process by playing up his Vietnam veteran credentials to match Bush on national security. At the same time, Kerry adopted some of Dean’s anti-Bush, anti-corporate populist rhetoric. The Financial Times commented, “for the Democrats, Deanism without Dean may have been just what the doctor ordered” (2/19/04).

Dean’s demise did not prove that the voters are conservative and that a radical candidate could never get elected. Rather, Kerry’s victory reflected voters’ deep anger towards Bush’s conservative agenda, albeit highly distorted by the corporate domination of the two-party system and the media.

An independent, left-wing candidate could gain significant popular support by calling for a $12.50/hour minimum wage, a universal public healthcare system, and money for jobs and education, not war. By boldly putting forward these socialist policies, which speak to the fundamental interests of workers, women, and people of color, the 50% of voters who don’t vote can be brought into political struggle.

As Bush’s lies and the full crisis in Iraq begin to hit home, and if the economic crisis worsens, millions of workers who once supported Bush will feel betrayed and could be won over to a radical alternative. However, the Democrats’ ability to attract these layers has been compromised by their support for the war and their anti-working class policies.

Only a clear class appeal can win over workers who currently vote Republican by explaining the truth about their wholesale attacks on working people. But if the choice is between Bush and a wavering, inconsistent “Bush-lite,” many workers will feel that, Bush may not be great, but why not vote for the real thing – the party that is clear about what it stands for?

Reclaim the Democratic Party?

Now that Kerry has clinched the Democratic nomination, a clear choice is sharply posed for supporters of Dean, Dennis Kucinich, and Al Sharpton: fall in line behind the pro-war Corporate Kerry, or support the anti-war, anti-corporate Ralph Nader campaign.

Dean is pressing his supporters not to support Nader but to get behind the Democratic nominee. Kucinich and Sharpton will eventually do the same, telling their supporters to work to pull the Democratic Party to the left.

But given the resistance of the Democratic Party leadership to someone as limited as Howard Dean, just imagine what they would do to a truly radical, pro-labor candidate. This shows what a tight grip the corporations have over the Democratic Party, and what a dead-end it is for progressives, anti-war activists, and workers.

The idea advocated by some leftists, including Ralph Nader, that ordinary people could reclaim the “heart and soul” of the Democratic Party and pull it back to its “original roots” before it was corrupted by corporate interests, is a complete fantasy. What past are they talking about? When the Democrats were the party of southern slave-owners and Jim Crow? When they dropped atomic bombs on Japan and threw hundreds of thousands of Japanese-Americans into concentration camps? When it waged war on Vietnam?

Official history presents President Franklin Roosevelt as the classic “true Democrat” for implementing his New Deal policies during the Great Depression that created jobs, the minimum wage, and Social Security. The truth is, however, Roosevelt was forced to pass those reforms because workers were mobilizing and organizing sit-down strikes on a mass scale that threatened the capitalist system.

Under the pressure of mass movements, the Democrats could once again move in a more populist direction – not to fight for the movements’ demands but to co-opt them and divert their anger into safe channels and co-opt them before the ruling class loses control of the situation.

The Democratic Party will never represent the interests of the working class and oppressed people. Workers, women, and people of color make up the vast majority of the population and bear the brunt of the Democrats’ and Republicans’ policies, yet we have no party that speaks for us. That’s why we need to build an independent party that stands up for the millions, not the millionaires.

In this year’s presidential election, Socialist Alternative is urging people to vote for Ralph Nader, an independent anti-corporate, anti-war presidential candidate, as the best way to register a protest against the two parties of big business. A bold Nader campaign could mobilize a radical minority which could play an important role in preparing the way for independent anti-war, anti-corporate candidates and a new party to provide independent political organization and representation for workers, women and people of color.

Justice #38, March-April 2004