Ten years ago, Howard Dean stood on a platform in an Iowa field, and with a simple declaration -- “I want my country back, Mr. President!” -- distinguished himself from the big-name presidential contenders looking to make their mark with Democratic voters.
Dean’s words that day fed a deep hunger, becoming a refrain and then a movement, spread largely by enthusiastic young supporters who’d been outside the political process.
After a long dry spell, here was a Democrat calling out the George W. Bush administration for starting unprovoked wars and widening the income gap with tax breaks for the rich. He wasn’t compromised, like many of the others, by having voted the wrong way.
For some of us (not enough, ultimately), the former Vermont governor was the one who most got it, who burned with passion and who could win.
Dean tapped into the grass roots, becoming the first major candidate to organize via the Internet and amass a war chest from small donors. He soared to the top of the polls, becoming the other Democratic candidates’ favorite punching bag.
But for all the momentum it started with, his campaign fizzled. He didn’t stand up to attacks. Those orange-capped Deaniacs at rallies didn’t show up in the polling booths, where it mattered.
The infamous non-concession speech that capped a third-place finish in the Iowa caucuses had people asking if he was too hotheaded or divorced from reality. Not until four years later did another candidate invoking hope, and boosted by a formidable organizing strategy, so capture imaginations.
So Dean’s return to Iowa last week to speak at a labor convention begged questions: What was he really here for? Could he still ignite that spark 10 years later, in the shadow of a Barack Obama? Had his years inside the Washington Beltway chastened him and/or made him more palatable to voters?
On the first question, he answered only, “At this point, I’m supporting Hillary Clinton,” when asked of 2016 presidential aspirations. But he never once mentioned her in his speech -- and he was heading to New Hampshire after Iowa.
In opening remarks, he quipped self-consciously. “It’s great to be back and I promise not to list any states,” alluding to the theatrics that cost him his footing caucus night. But soon he was working himself up again, pledging a debate about what’s right for the nation, declaring: “It’s going to start in Virginia and it’s going to come right here to Iowa!”
He wasn’t here to talk about the presidency, Dean insisted, but about how Democrats can win back state legislatures through door-knocking and nonpartisan appeals. Yet he also couldn’t resist such partisan pronouncements as, “The Republicans are killing themselves every day by being so obstructionist.” And, the Republican Party is “a pathetic shell of what it once was.”
Dean still has that fire in the belly, and he is still at his best giving voice to outrage in his signature style -- as in, “The American dream depends upon not having a class of people that makes so much money they don’t have to think about anyone else.”
He doesn’t seem especially chastened.
“There’s not anybody -- you may remember from my campaign -- who’s as much of a firebrand about fighting for human rights,” he boasted to the Iowa Federation of Labor convention-goers.
He even bragged that no one in Washington wanted him to chair the Democratic National Committee -- which he went on to do after the election -- and that his first act was to fire all the D.C. consultants. He reportedly raised more money than any previous chair in the year after a presidential election.
Dean said he’s learning from young people about the need to bring voters together despite party affiliation, such as by reaching out to young evangelicals. Yet even while insisting organizers find common ground with enemies, he himself showed few signs of wanting to play nice with political foes.
Dean seems pulled in two directions. If he does run again, he’ll need to learn a juggling act he didn’t master last time: staying authentic in harnessing outrage, while appealing to the voters he claims need tapping: those fed up with partisan name-calling and combativeness.