Howard Dean spoke here in St. Louis while he was in town for the Midwest Regional DNC meeting. The speech itself wasn't all that surprising for folks who have been listening to Dean or his supporters. In this case he was speaking to the local chapter of Democracy for America, formerly Dean for America, so his speech was more rally than anything.
Dean's basic message is one that I think the DNC should pay greater attention to. In effect his argument was that the Democrats are playing by the Republican's rules and that it was time for the party to embrace the aspects that make it the Democratic Party and not the Republican party. Some of the leaders in the DNC seem to think that playing "Republican-Lite" messages will help shore up support.
Dean, I think, correctly argues that the "Republican-Lite" campaign strategy has simply allowed the Republicans to cloak their plans in Democratic language (think Compassionate Conservativism, William F. Buckley must have choked on his brandy at that one) thus blurring the lines between the two parties.
You combine liberal-sounding initiatives with Republican-style campaigning (I am right, and I know it because I am a Christian) and you have a strategy that can cover a lot of ground. Republicans are in the convenient position of being able to argue for government-sponsored reforms (a liberal characteristic) while at the same time cutting government programs (a conservative characteristic).
At the same time the Republicans have used their vocal evangelical christian supporters as backdrops for their argument that Democrats are "out of touch" with American "values", despite the high rate of religious participation among card-carrying Democrats. Many anti-war and pro-gay rights efforts have been led by liberal christian denominations and ministers and rabbis are often among the leaders of liberal/Democratic initiatives.
Very few serious people could ever argue against the fact that the events of 9/11 have provided a rhetorical hammer for the Republican leadership. To say so is, unfortunately, not a cynical position. President Bush did a great job in the days following the attacks. He did rise to the occasion and acted, admirably, as the leader of one country under attack. Unfortunately, the events quickly became a shield behind which the Republicans could act with impunity. One famous quote from House Majority leader Tom Delay R-Texas states, "Nothing is more important in a time of war, than cutting taxes."
In effect the Republicans have out-maneuvered the Democrats by stealing their best lines and then out-shouting them.
Dean pointed out that in the 2004 election, Florida voted for President Bush and to raise the minimum wage. The minimum wage issue won a much greater percentage of the vote (%70 voting for the increase) than Bush's margin (%52 to %47). That is a lot of room for growth.
There seems to be a consensus that Dean will most likely be elected the head of the DNC despite the objections of some prominent members such as the Clintons. If so, it will most likely be a positive turn of events for the Democratic Party. On the national level the Democrats have been losing across the board for years, yet at the local level they are making gains. If there is one thing that characterized Dean's campaign for the Democratic nomination, it was the success of the local grassroots supporters, the ones that developed into DNF.
Dean's rise to the head of the DNC will of course eliminate any possibility of running for the nomination in 2008. In fact he has explicitly stated he would not even entertain the notion. If that dedication to rebuilding the Democratic party is genuine, Dean could help lead the Democrats out of a slump that many Democrats in national leadership positions seemed baffled by.
To steal some style from Aaron Sorkin, maybe it is time to let the Democrats be Democrats.
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