Howard Dean is taking his fall from political grace and giving it an upgrade — call it DFA 2.0. In this version, he's trying to turn a loss into a whole different brand of victory.
The former Vermont governor announced his plans Thursday for a new organization, Democracy for America, in an effort to channel the momentum from his now-defunct Dean for America presidential campaign into helping other Democratic candidates take back the White House and Congress.
"You have the power to make this new organization matter and to use it to change America," he told an eager crowd in Seattle after outlining his plan to continue promoting his progressive, grass-roots agenda. "You have the power to take back Washington for ordinary Americans and make this country great again. Let's make it happen, starting right here, right now."
Since Dean's departure from the race, his supporters — unwilling to let their candidate go gently into the night — have been anxiously awaiting the unveiling of his phase two. And Dean answered their calls with the revamped DFA blueprint, finally ready to "support the people who supported him," as 24-year-old DFA blogmaster Tanner Brooks put it.
After the collapse of the Dean campaign, speculation about the fate of the so-called Deaniacs and their movement had reached a fever pitch. By the time Massachusetts Senator John Kerry — once one of Dean's most vocal rivals — was named the nominee, and he and Dean kissed and made up, new worries were brewing in the Dean camp. The DFA blog overflowed with vehement opinions, and talk of a Kerry endorsement from Dean spurred even more heated conversation. Bloggers were appalled at the possibility that Dean might turn over his hard-won delegates — or worse yet, his supporter list — to the Kerry campaign.
"Dean supporters are a unique bunch, and asking them to go to another candidate after asking them to continue fighting was bound to make some angry," said Becca Doten, the Southern California Generation Dean organizer. "We all know he supports Kerry, he stood next to him in public, and that's what made me say OK and swallow my pride to sit down with people to discuss Kerry. We'll support Kerry and do whatever it takes, but we don't need an endorsement."
Doten, like so many Democrats, is more concerned — at least at the national level — with defeating President Bush than acting on any reservations she might have about Kerry. And other Dean supporters seem to think similarly.
"[Our] priorities are what they always were — to create a discussion that exposes the radical politics of the Bush administration to get them out of office," Brooks said, "and inspire participation in the process, from the local to the national level, to promote progressive policies."
But many in the Dean camp agree that, even with the goal of a Bush defeat in mind, there will be those who still can't picture themselves casting a ballot for Kerry, whom Dean opposed on so many fronts.
A recent Choose or Lose online poll showed that young people tend to concur on the importance of voting according to a candidate's platform, at least at this early stage of the election game. For 58 percent of them, a candidate's issues were the main motivator to vote for him, 20 percent preferred leadership capabilities, 15 percent thought personality was tops, and only 7 percent considered electability a priority.
Still, insiders posit that the combination of Dean's urging, the looming election and the good old-fashioned sense of party faithfulness that Dean has tried to inspire might change even those steadfast minds.
"There's not this anger, and one of the big reasons is that Dean is speaking out for Kerry, [and he] himself sees that his next step is to support Kerry," said Tony Cani, an Arizona State University senior who was the state director for Generation Dean in Arizona and one of four national coordinators for Dean's campaign. "Young people do this a lot: We have some view or stance and will focus on that one little thing to the end, so we won't support this person out of ideological selfishness because he disagrees. But we forget that there are people out there who need food and shelter, who need protection, and we have to support the candidate who can give them that."
But just as some Dean supporters might be loathe to vote for Kerry because they view him as a typical insider politician, there are also those who might depart from the political process altogether. Many of the young people who signed on for the Dean campaign were political virgins, having never worked on a campaign before or, in many cases, even voted in an election.
But for those, like Philip de Vellis, one of the volunteer coordinators on Dean's national campaign, there's hope for the newbies yet. "Once you get involved in something like this, it's kind of addictive, so a good number of people get involved and stay involved. And it's kind of boring once you go back to your regular thing. The closer you were to the action, the more you miss it."
That thirst for political action may be the real legacy of the first iteration of DFA. Even before Dean voiced his renewed commitment to grass-roots organizing for Democratic candidates at every level, supporters all across the country were working ardently on local and state campaigns, and some have even considered running themselves. As Doten points out, the message was always "Dean for America," not "Dean for President," and from that perspective, nothing's changed.
"The great thing about the Dean campaign wasn't just that we were getting people to vote for this specific candidate," she said. "We did all this community-building and it opened our eyes to how empowering it is to know you have a say. We're not going to give that up now that the campaign's over. It reminded us that there's something beyond ourselves, and it appealed to the best in all of us, so we're going to keep doing that."
For more political news, insight into the 2004 presidential election and information on registering to vote, check out Choose or Lose.