If the leadership qualities of those in charge of the national Democratic Party could be squeezed into a shampoo bottle, the directions on the back of the bottle might read something like this: "Make tentative statement. Offer equivocation to avoid appearing adamant. Scramble for cover when colleague offers stinging critique of opposition. Stab colleague in back in public. Palpitate and fret, hem and haw. Lather, rinse, repeat."
Quite a recipe for success, yes? Not lately.
And then along comes Howard Dean, chairman of the DNC, outspoken and uncompromising, swinging Willie Stark's meat ax with a will and a purpose. He dared to say that he hates Republicans, that the leadership of that party hasn't worked a day in their lives, that the GOP has become a radical hothouse of right-wing Christians, almost all of whom are white, and that House majority leader Tom DeLay should go back to Texas and get his looming prison sentence over with. Insert palpitations. Suddenly, Democrats like Joe Biden and Bill Richardson start knocking over furniture and old ladies in their rush to get to a microphone so they can distance themselves from the wild man.
Yes, yes, lather and rinse and repeat. The problem with all the equivocation is that it obscures a simple fact that requires exposure and discussion in this country: Dean was right. Ninety nine percent of Republicans in the state legislatures in all 50 states, and in Congress in Washington DC, are white. Even in states and districts with large minority populations, the Republican representatives for those places are almost uniformly white Christians.
The answer is straightforward, and appropriately bold after several years of ineffective limp-noodle Democratic leadership. Every time Dean fires off one of his salvos, reporters flip open their notebooks. Headlines get made, discussion begins, and a whole lot of people start debating the facts and merits of his statements. Is the Republican leadership run by right-wing yahoos? Is DeLay going to jail? Controversy begets press. Dean can see, as well as anyone else, how effective the moderate, soft-touch, treading-lightly approach has been working lately for the Democrats.
But how are we going to win those white Christian middle-America voters to our side by having Dean basically call them out? asks the ruffled Democratic leadership. The answer to this lies at the heart of what the Democratic party has been failing at for a while now. The voters who are supposedly going to be alienated by this kind of talk are the very same voters who look for guts, strength and straight talk from the leadership of this country. All too often, Democratic leaders come off sounding like they are saying seven things at once, leaving the impression that their spines are somewhat slippery. Boldness, on the other hand, begets confidence, even in disagreement.
These Dean statements also, coincidentally, whip the Democratic base into a roaring frenzy as they hear an actual Democratic leader speak their beliefs out loud and in public. One of the things Dean is working on every day is to redirect DNC fundraising away from the big-dollar donors who give equally to both parties in order to hedge their bets. Dependence on this breed of donor causes the party to crab towards the middle and avoid anything resembling true opposition.
Dean wants DNC fundraising efforts to be focused on the common citizen, the Democratic activist who has been screaming at the party to say what must be said, and Dean's inflammatory statements spark the kind of donation avalanche that turned his Presidential campaign into a financial juggernaut. He may have lost in the end, but the manner in which he raised campaign money changed the face of electoral politics. He is porting those lessons into national DNC fundraising efforts, and statements like these go a long way towards making those efforts wildly successful.
Memo to Dean: Keep doing what you are doing. Lather, rinse, repeat.