Days after dropping out of the race for DNC Chairman, former Vermont Governor and former DNC Chair Howard Dean discussed the DNC and the future of the Democratic Party in an exclusive interview with The Politic.
Dean said that there were a variety of factors behind his decision to drop his bid for a second stint as DNC Chairman.
“We need a unified Democratic Party. I didn’t want this DNC race to turn into a Hillary versus Bernie proxy contest,” said Dean.
As a vocal Hillary Clinton supporter, Dean was seen by many as the establishment candidate. One of the other candidates in the race, Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison, has the backing of Senator Bernie Sanders and many of his supporters.
“The map I was looking at that had me winning would have been a lot like the Hillary versus Bernie primary map, and I didn’t want that,” Dean said, “The one thing we cannot have is a big division in the party.”
In recent days, Ellison has rolled out a series of high profile endorsements from Democratic leaders inside the beltway. Outgoing Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid has endorsed Ellison, along with his successor as Minority Leader, Chuck Schumer.
But Dean told The Politic that these endorsements had little influence on his decision to withdraw. “I’ve beaten them before, and I had no reason to think I couldn’t beat them again,” he said, referring to his election as DNC Chairman in 2005. During this election, Democratic leaders such as House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid endorsed Tim Roemer, an Indiana Congressman who ran against Dean. Dean was elected overwhelmingly.
According to Dean, the endorsements of beltway insiders do not decide the DNC race.
“What people don’t understand about the DNC is that there are 45 votes in the DNC from inside the beltway,” Dean explained, “The other 402 votes come from outside the beltway. So numerically, power lies with the states.”
Dean also said that another reason he stepped aside was because he wanted a younger person to take the job.
“Had I won,” he said, the Democratic Party “would have had a DNC Chairman, Senate Minority Leader, House Minority Leader, and Presidential Candidate all in their 60s and 70s. So I would like to see a younger person run the DNC.”
Since Dean announced his departure from the race for DNC Chair, three candidates remain in the field: Ellison, South Carolina Party Chairman and Yale alumnus Jamie Harrison, and New Hampshire Party Chairman Ray Buckley.
Dean offered praise for all three, but said he is not ready to endorse a candidate yet.
“I like all of them,” he said, “I’ve known them all for a long time. All of these guys are well qualified for the position of DNC Chairman. I may make an endorsement, but it won’t be until well after the New Year.”
Ellison, who is viewed by political pundits as the frontrunner in the race, has come under fire for refusing to pledge to resign his Congressional seat if he is elected DNC Chair.
Dean said that “the position of DNC Chairman is a full-time job. I’ve told Keith [Ellison] that I don’t support the idea of having somebody serve in another political position while being DNC Chair.”
Some Democrats have proposed to split up the duties of the DNC Chair, arguing that the position has become too expansive. The idea of a dual-chairman system has gained traction, with former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell coming out in support. Harrison and Buckley have both expressed that they are open to the idea.
But Dean does not buy into this plan. “That’s a mistake,” he said “You can’t divide the work. This is a job in which you’re going to fly 200,000 miles a year and spend 80 hours a week at a minimum. You either want to be the DNC Chair or you don’t.”
Dean asserted that the whomever the next DNC Chair may be, they have their work cut out for them. Dean argued that there are many DNC priorities that need to change.
One of the most important changes is shifting the focus of the DNC away from politics and towards the mechanics of organization.
“The fundamental failing of the DNC over the past eight years is the same fundamental failing we always have when we have a Democratic President, which is that the President controls the DNC and it becomes a reelection vehicle,” Dean told The Politic, “The focus on building the state and local apparatus is lessened. It happened with Jimmy Carter, it happened with Bill Clinton, it’s always been that way.”
It is worth nothing that of the past four Democratic Presidents, none have been succeeded by another Democrat.
Dean argued that the DNC needs to refocus its attention on state and local races.
“We need to focus not only on federal races, but also on races for school board and city council,” he said, “In this election, not only did we lose to Trump, we lost several governors races and dozens of seats in state legislatures all across the country.”
The Republican Party now controls 33 governorships, their highest number since 1992. The Republicans also control both houses of the state legislature in 32 states, while the Democrats control both houses of the state legislature in five states. The Republicans control either the governorship or a branch of the state legislature (or both) in 44 states, their highest percentage since the Civil War.
Under President Obama’s tenure alone, the Democrats lost a whopping 919 seats in state legislatures to Republicans.
“We need to return to the grassroots and lay the foundation. You can’t sustain a party in Washington. You have to sustain a party outside Washington,” said Dean.
Dean also added that in order for the Democratic Party to win local and state elections, power must be decentralized.
“One of the biggest failings of Washington is that the insiders want to pick the candidates. They think they know better, but they can’t completely understand what people are thinking on the ground.”
Dean touted his tenure as DNC Chair as proof that decentralization works.
In particular he pointed out the Midterm Elections of 2006, in which the Democrats took control of the House of Representatives as well as the Senate. On the state level, the Democratic Party won a majority of governorships and state legislatures. The election was the last time the Democratic Party had both a majority of governorships and a majority of state legislatures.
“The reason for our success is we trusted the locals. There were 17 House candidates that the DCCC (The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the campaign arm of the House Democrats) knew nothing about. Those candidates were recruited not by us, but by the local apparatus. And most of them won. Locals know who their best candidate is and we need to trust the local apparatus, the people on the ground. If we don’t focus on the local and state levels again, we will lose in 2018 and we will lose in 2020,” said Dean.
Dean also argued that the DNC needs to ensure that it is completely neutral in Presidential elections.
Over the summer of 2016, the incumbent DNC Chairwoman, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, was forced to resign after Wikileaks released emails showing that DNC staffers had inappropriately backed the Clinton campaign and criticized the Sanders campaign.
The DNC was further rocked by allegations that Donna Brazile, the interim Chairwoman of the DNC, had inappropriately provided debate questions to the Clinton campaign in advance.
“It’s clear the DNC had its thumb on the scale, and that’s a big no-no. When I ran the DNC, we were totally neutral between Obama and Clinton. I didn’t even vote in my home state primary because being neutral isn’t the same as voting and not telling anyone who you voted for. If any DNC staffers wanted to campaign for Obama or Clinton, they had to resign from the DNC,” said Dean.
The challenges and divisions facing the next DNC Chair also reflect on the challenges and divisions facing the Democratic Party as a whole. According to Dean, the Democratic Party must refocus following the 2016 election.
“Right now, we’re living during a populist revolution,” said Dean. “It reminds me of the French Revolution, except fortunately we live in a democracy, so there’s no guillotine. All over the world, there is a powerful force. People who have been left behind by globalization feel frustrated. We have to figure out a way to include everybody in globalization and everybody in the benefits of capitalism. We haven’t done this very well.”
On this note, Dean argues that the Democratic Party must appeal to blue collar workers once again. Traditionally part of a demographic group that has voted overwhelmingly Democratic, many white blue-collar workers voted Republican in 2016.
“Trump is a marketing genius, there’s no question about that. And he sold himself very well to the working man,” said Dean.
But Dean questioned President Trump’s ability to keep their support.
“So far, based on Trump’s cabinet picks and policy proposals, the signal he’s sending to the working class is not totally encouraging. He wants to get rid of Obamacare, which will strip 20 million workers of their health care. We have to change the priorities of our country so that we’re building things and so that people are going to work in high-paying jobs. Trump has talked about this, but there’s little evidence he will keep his promises. Working class people will figure this out soon enough,” said Dean.
But Trump supporters disagree vehemently with Dean’s assertion.
“Trump is one of the few people in politics who has a decent understanding of what will incentivize business to hire American workers,” said Karl Amadeus Notturno, a vocal supporter of Trump ever since he declared his candidacy. “He has spoken in detail on the campaign trail about his approach to keeping jobs inside the U.S. I have no reason to believe that he will not keep his promises. In fact, the people who he is appointing to his cabinet are precisely the people who would understand how to execute his vision.”
Regardless of President Trump’s performance, Dean said the Democratic Party needs to deliver for the working class. “The truth is we need real tax reform that benefits the middle class and working class. We need to change the tax code. We need to make it so that instead of being able to make a lot of money trading derivatives and collateralized mortgage obligations, you can make a lot of money building affordable housing and improved infrastructure.”
According to Dean, “everyone has to benefit from capitalism and globalization. The Democratic Party must stand up for the working class to make sure this happens. This is the working people’s party and we’ve always been that. We need to remember that’s who we are.”
Dean also argued that the Democratic Party must encourage a younger generation to take charge.
“It’s time for a new generation to take the reins of power,” said Dean. “We need dynamic, young leaders. I’ve got several suggestions. I’d like to see Kirsten Gillibrand run for President in 2020. She’s somebody I’ve had my eye on for a very long time. I’d like to see [Los Angeles Mayor] Eric Garcetti and [Massachusetts Congressmen] Joe Kennedy and Seth Moulton run for national office. [New Mexico Senator] Martin Heinrich would make a great Presidential candidate. I’d like to see young people become state chairs and delegates to the DNC.”
But according to Dean, the most important thing for the Democratic Party is to ensure young people participate in the political process.
“Politics can be clunky and slow. It can be hard. The younger generation has been hesitant to take ownership of the political process, but this needs to change. If we’re going to have the revolution Bernie talked about, it means people will actually have to put themselves on the line. 20, 30-year-olds need to start running for office. Students like you need to step up to the plate.”