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After the 2004 election, the Republican Party held the White House, both houses of Congress, twenty-eight governorships, and a majority of state legislatures. One-party rule, it seemed, was here to stay.
Herding Donkeys tells the improbable tale of the grassroots resurgence that transformed the Democratic Party from a lonely minority to a sizable majority. It chronicles the inside story of Howard Dean’s visionary yet deeply controversial fifty-state strategy, charting his ...
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After the 2004 election, the Republican Party held the White House, both houses of Congress, twenty-eight governorships, and a majority of state legislatures. One-party rule, it seemed, was here to stay.
Herding Donkeys tells the improbable tale of the grassroots resurgence that transformed the Democratic Party from a lonely minority to a sizable majority. It chronicles the inside story of Howard Dean’s visionary yet deeply controversial fifty-state strategy, charting his unpredictable journey from insurgent presidential candidate, to front-running flameout, to chairman and conscience of the Democratic Party in an unexpected third act. Ari Berman reveals how the Obama campaign built upon Dean’s strategy when others ridiculed it, expanding the ranks of the party and ultimately laying the groundwork for Obama’s historic electoral victory—but also sowing the seeds of dissent that would lead to legislative stalemate and intraparty strife.
Revelatory and entertaining, in the vein of Timothy Crouse’s The Boys on the Bus and Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland, Herding Donkeys combines fresh reportage with a rich and colorful cast of characters. It captures the untold stories of the people and places that reshaped the electoral map, painting a vivid portrait of a shifting country while dissecting the possibility and peril of a new era in American politics.
“The resurgence of the Democratic Party in the past two election cycles is one of the most important—and least understood—political stories of the new century. Ari Berman tells that tale with reportorial verve, a keen eye, a sharp pen, and a wealth of fresh insight. If you want to understand the grassroots revival of progressivism in America, and also the new challenges and aching disappointments that have come along with it, this is the book to read.” —John Heilemann, national political columnist for New York magazine and coauthor of Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of Lifetime
“Ari Berman has written a political narrative so revelatory and exhilarating it kept me up nights reading. Herding Donkeys is some of the freshest and incisive political reporting out there, and Berman, who has the keen eye of a novelist, is one heck of a storyteller.” —Alex Kotlowitz, author of There Are No Children Here: The Story of Two Boys Growing Up in the Other America
“Herding Donkeys is essential to understanding how the Democratic Party came back from the dead in 2006 and 2008. But it’s especially good at explaining what happened to all of Barack Obama’s grassroots energy. This is a hopeful but also sobering tale, told with strong inside reporting.” —Jonathan Alter, author of The Promise: President Obama, Year One
“Herding Donkeys is political reporting at its finest. In his spirited debut, Ari Berman takes readers inside the back rooms and living rooms where politics actually happens, but his novel vantage point doesn’t prevent him from rendering the tough but fair judgments every great political reporter needs to make. This is a ripping account of the Democratic Party through an intense period of historic transformation.” —Michael Tomasky, author of Hillary’s Turn: Inside Her Improbable, Victorious Senate Campaign
“An intriguing behind-the-scenes look at how the Obama campaign built on the grassroots movement that had catapulted Dean to prominence . . . Engaging and balanced—a stand-out book.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“With a keen appreciation of political strategy as well as an eye for telling anecdote and amusing detail, Ari Berman tells the amazing story of the Democratic party’s revival. Berman’s reporting vindicates the fifty-state strategy of Howard Dean and the determined organizing of Barack Obama—and shows why grassroots activism is still the most potent force for change in America.” —Joe Conason, author of Big Lies: The Right-Wing Propaganda Machine and How It Distorts the Truth
“Ari Berman tells the rollicking and rousing story of the fight for the soul of the Democratic party that has reshaped American politics. Full of riveting revelations, vivid reporting, and a cast of colorful characters, Herding Donkeys captures the exhilaration of the grassroots insurgency that Howard Dean launched—and Obama seized—to realign our political map. At a time of disillusionment with establishment politics, this book is solace for the soul. It is a timely reminder that the grit of tenacious organizers and antiestablishment politicians in red, blue, and purple states alike offers Hope 2.0.” —Katrina vanden Heuvel, Editor and Publisher, The Nation
" While a scoop-rich tome like John Heilemann and Mark Halperin's Game Change can tell us a lot about how campaigns are won and lost from the top down, Berman's more thoughtful book is equally good fun in telling the story of the election from the bottom up." —Dana Goldstein, The American Prospect
1 INSURGENT VS. ESTABLISHMENT
I was the biggest insult you could have—an outside-the-Beltway guy who didn't want to play by the Washington rules.—Howard Dean
It was one of those expansively clear summer days in the Mountain West. On August 23, 2003, Howard Dean's campaign had just embarked on the frenetic Sleepless Summer Tour—ten cities in four days across 6,147 miles, raising a quick million via its campaign blog in the process. You could watch the dollar amount inch upward in real time on a giant baseball bat posted on the website. Dean had kicked the tour off in Falls Church, Virginia, then flew to Milwaukee. That morning he was headed to Portland, followed by Seattle, Spokane, San Antonio, Austin, Chicago, and ultimately concluding in New York City's Bryant Park. In between Milwaukee and Seattle, the campaign added an unannounced stop in the most seemingly impractical of places—Boise, Idaho.
Idaho didn't get a whole lot of visitors from national Democrats, except maybe for trips to their ski chalets and summer homes (John Kerry had one in Ketchum). "Let It Be Perpetual"—the state's motto—might as well have described the Republican control of government there. So when a few local Democrats in Boise requested some face time with the former Vermont governor, they didn't expect to get an affirmative reply. But Dean unexpectedly said yes, as he was prone to do with these types of requests. After much internalwrangling among his staff, the campaign figured it needed a refueling stop anyway, so what the hell? Let's go to Boise!
As Dean's chartered Boeing 737, otherwise known as the Grassroots Express, took off from Milwaukee, his press aide, Matt Vogel, announced the stop. The campaign was going to deplane for an hour in Boise and was expecting "fifty people or so," Vogel said. When Dean landed on the tarmac, 450 people were waiting to greet him, holding blue DEAN FOR AMERICA signs. A social worker named Delmar Stone could barely contain his exuberance. "The last time I was this excited about someone who could change the world," Stone said, "was when I heard about Jesus!"
Dean was not quite the Messiah, but he had been on quite a roll. He'd just graced the covers of Time and Newsweek and would soon shatter Bill Clinton's three-month fund-raising record by amassing an army of small donors over the Internet, using that money to air TV ads in six states a full five months before voters in Iowa went to their first-in-the-nation caucus. He now led in polls in Iowa and New Hampshire and had staff on the ground in twelve states and volunteers in all fifty. Assembling this kind of organization by August, said Dean's media consultant Steve McMahon, was "unprecedented. It's never even been contemplated." Dean's mad-scientist campaign guru, Joe Trippi, dubbed it "a frickin' revolution." Boise was living proof. If the campaign could draw hundreds of people for an unannounced stop in the Republican hinterlands, the possibilities were endless. By discarding the old playbook, Dean had become a new type of candidate, running a different kind of campaign.
Dean stood onstage behind a large American flag perched on a hangar. The five-foot-eight, 180-pound Vermonter, who was often described as "sartorially challenged," wore a blue and white seersucker shirt with the sleeves rolled up (it gave him a salt-of-the-earth look), dotted red tie, and black chino pants, held tight by his late brother Charlie's black and silver rivet belt, which he wore every day. (In 1973, twenty-four-year-old Charlie, the most likely politician in the Dean family, traveled to war-torn Southeast Asia andnever came back, killed by guerrilla captors in Laos.) Next to Dean onstage rested another flag. "You see this flag?" he asked, grabbing it for emphasis. "This flag does not belong to John Ashcroft and the right wing of the Republican Party! This flag belongs to the people of the United States of America," he said sternly, with more than a tinge of anger in his gravelly voice, "and we're gonna take it back!" As it happened, Attorney General Ashcroft was scheduled to be in Boise the very next day, defending the controversial Patriot Act, which nearly every Democrat in Congress blindly went along with in the aftermath of 9/11, one of a series of capitulations to President Bush that Dean and his followers deemed unforgivable. The crowd loved Dean's fiery rhetoric and plainspoken populism, especially when he asked, "When are Democrats going to stand up and be Democrats again?"
At the end of the impromptu rally, Dean promised to return to Idaho as soon as he could. Indeed, he went back two months later during another swing through the West, prompting a local columnist to joke that he must have a girlfriend in town, he visited so much. There was some logic to the Boise visit—Idaho would hold its caucus between the Wisconsin primary on February 17 and a glut of nine primaries on March 2, and Dean was already preparing for a lengthy primary. But the larger meaning was symbolic, a message to fellow Democrats not to take anything for granted, for Dean's campaign—thanks to its grassroots support—could go anywhere, at any time, and leave its imprint.
A Democrat hadn't held a major statewide office in Idaho since 1994, the year Republicans took over everything. The last man to do so, former governor Cecil Andrus, happened to be in the crowd that day. "I've never seen this kind of energy in Boise," the seventy-two-year-old Andrus told Dean's adman, Mark Squier. A careful student of political imagery, Squier watched the scene with amazement. "There's a bunch of old-timers in the crowd," Squier reported to Trippi, "and they're going, Finally!" Squier punched his fist in the air to capture the intensity of the moment. "A Democrat who's notafraid to grab the flag and stick it in the ground ... It's like they've been dying twenty years in the desert looking for someone that they can beat back with." Such experiences drove home Dean's conviction that there were Democrats everywhere, in the reddest of so-called red America, and that it was time for the national party to stop pretending they didn't exist.
Twice a year, the various members of the Democratic Party—state party leaders, representatives from the different interest groups, elder statesmen—gather for the biannual meeting of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) in Washington. During the election season, the Democratic candidates for president are invited to speak. These functions tend to be polite, sterile, scripted, backslapping affairs. That wasn't what Dean had in mind when he arrived at the podium on the afternoon of February 21, 2003.
Just a few weeks earlier, Colin Powell had gone before the UN and made what many pundits and politicians deemed to be an unassailable case that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction and needed to be forcibly disarmed. But Dean still wasn't convinced, and he was increasingly agitated by the unwillingness of Democratic leaders in Congress and on the campaign trail to question the Bush administration's march to war—and the broader failure of Democrats to challenge Bush on the domestic front. "The Democrats were shell-shocked, they were behaving like Republicans, they were afraid of their own shadow," Dean said of the mood at the time. "And the Democratic public really wanted something different." But he hadn't yet articulated precisely those sentiments, and no one really knew who he was. In January 2003, Dean still had only $157,000 in the bank and seven staffers crammed into a tiny office (the kitchen doubled as a conference room) above a pub in Burlington. Al Sharpton was leading him in the polls, to say nothing of John Kerry, John Edwards, Dick Gephardt, and Joe Lieberman.
At 10:45 a.m., Dean sat in his hotel room at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill. He'd just gotten off a red-eye (his preferred mode of travel) from California and was operating on two hours of sleep, which even for a doctor/politician was pushing it. He was due to speak at 11:15 and hadn't yet prepared a speech. "So what do I have to say?" he asked his small group of advisers—media consultant Steve McMahon, then-campaign manager Rick Ridder, longtime aide Kate O'Connor. McMahon brought along his business partner, Joe Trippi, to feel out the candidate that day. Dean had met Trippi only a handful of times but knew of his reputation as a bit of a loose cannon, wildly inventive but deeply insecure and difficult to control. Trippi urged the candidate to pose a series of rhetorical questions about the decaying state of the Democratic Party. "Let's take it to them," Trippi said.
"This is a little incendiary for Capitol Hill," Ridder said worriedly.
"We need to push the button now to create the movement," Trippi responded.
"Movements don't win elections," Ridder said, "candidates do."
"This will create a buzz," McMahon chimed in, "but is it the buzz we need now?"
Dean, ever the pugilist, liked Trippi's idea. "Let's just draw the contrast," he said.
Trippi wanted him to say "What the fuck happened to the Democratic Party?"
Dean knew he couldn't be quite so explicit. "How about if I say, 'What I want to know is'?" Dean pulled an envelope out of his pocket, kneeled down in front of a coffee table, and scribbled a litany of one-word indictments. The entire speech, if you could call it that, was hatched in ten minutes. "There was a dynamic tension in the room," said Dean's campaign chairman, Steve Grossman, "that led me to believe that Howard had something he needed to say to the DNC, to the American people, to the media, and he knew this was the moment." But as was so often the case, nobody quite knew exactly what shoot-from-the-hip-Howard would say once he took the stage.
His staff had passed out little packages of Vermont maple syrup and cheddar cheese as goody baskets, so Dean started the speech with a line thanking his campaign team for its hard work. Then he paused, licked his upper lip, and got right to the point.
"What I want to know," he said in a deadly serious monotone, "is why in the world the Democratic Party leadership is supporting the president's unilateral attack on Iraq." So much for a formal introduction. Scattered cheers came from a group of supporters holding white Dean signs in the back of the room.
Usually, political speeches take a while to get going, but Dean chose not to bury the lede, as they say in the news business, and continued his refrain. "What I want to know is why are Democratic Party leaders supporting tax cuts? The question is not how big the tax cut should be, the question should be can we afford a tax cut at all with the largest deficit in the history of this country?" A few more isolated cheers. Most members of the audience sat uncomfortably in their seats.
"What I want to know is why we're fighting in Congress about the Patient's Bill of Rights when the Democratic Party ought to be standing up for health care for every single American man, woman, and child in this country." More nervous clapping and scattered cheers.
"What I want to know is why our folks are voting for the president's No Child Left Behind bill that leaves every child behind, every teacher behind, every school board behind, and every property tax payer behind." Dean was picking up steam, and amid a few more hoots and hollers people were starting to stand up and get in on the act. He waited for a moment, then delivered the punch line he'd unknowingly borrowed from the late senator Paul Wellstone, who was killed in a plane crash days before the election in October 2002.
"I'm Howard Dean," he told the room, "and I'm here to represent the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party!" The room finally exploded, with more than one person asking themselves, "Who is this guy?!"
Steve Grossman led the DNC from 1997 to 1999 and had sat through more than a few of these gatherings. He'd never seen one like this before. "The response to all of the candidates was rather tepid, but people flew out of their seats for Howard," he said. "The applause was thunderous." Grossman sensed immediately the larger significance of the speech. "He challenged the Democratic Party right to its core," Grossman said. "To some extent he was challenging the people in the room, but they didn't see it that way, because they were always chafing under party orthodoxy and many of them were grassroots activists and they were looking for somebody to galvanize them and pull them out of that morass." Dean emerged the clear winner of the early cattle call. "He just blew those people away," said Joe Klein of Time magazine. "It was one of the most effective speeches I've ever seen a candidate give." The question was, would it be a temporary blip or the beginning of something bigger?
The Dean offensive had begun. For Trippi, "it was sort of like love at first sight," he recalled. Soon after, he went up to Burlington to run the campaign full-time. He and Dean proved a combustible mix, like throwing vinegar on baking soda in chemistry class. "There's an unpredictability about Howard Dean that's mirrored by the unpredictability of Joe Trippi," Grossman said. "You never knew on any given day exactly how it was going to turn out." Dean's speech on February 21 marked the beginning of that wild ride, which would continue long after his presidential campaign came crashing apart.
"My goal was not to be the best friend of all the people I was running against," Dean said. "My goal was to win. And I thought the party wasn't going to win unless we underwent fundamental change." His DNC speech, more than any other single event, set the tone for the rest of the campaign and shifted the arc of the Democratic Party for years to come. What direction the party would take, however, was hardly a settled question. Could Democrats once again become a party of the people, motivated by core principles and powered by grassroots activists out in the states? Or would theparty remain a Washington-centric institution, plagued by caution and calculation and dominated by a privileged group of megadonors and political operatives? In the weeks and months and years that followed, Dean would become a folk hero to insurgent Democrats across the country, but also a marked man among a circle of increasingly discredited yet stubbornly unyielding power brokers eager to hold on to their turf. The fight was much bigger than one person; Dean was only the match that lit the fire.
A year and a half earlier, Dean strolled into the office of his top aide, Kate O'Connor, a thin, wiry, meticulous thirty-seven-year-old native Vermonter, and casually told her he was planning to run for president. She barely blinked. "If George Bush can do it," O'Connor told her boss, "then why can't you?"
In presidential politics, there are really only two types of characters worth paying attention to: the establishment candidates and the insurgents. Those in the former club rely on their lifetime of experience, well-to-do friends, media connections, and influential circle of advisers to bulldoze over their lesser opponents. The British writer Henry Fairlie, in 1955, famously described "the Establishment" as "the whole matrix of official and social relations within which power is exercised." Despite claims to the contrary, such an establishment most certainly still exists.
Insurgents, by contrast, possess none of these claims to power and usually start off broke and unknown. They must create buzz—usually by saying something unusually substantive for a politician that is counter to the position of the establishment candidate(s)—to get in the papers, which they hope will help them raise money. From the very beginning Dean was, by default, an insurgent. He hardly visited Washington, spent little if any time socializing with the political and media in crowd, and had never raised more than $1 million for any of his campaigns. "I'm going to be dead last in fund-raising," Dean predicted early on. He liked to be home on weeknights andin Burlington on weekends. Though he was happily married, his wife, Judy, a practicing physician, hardly ever campaigned with him, which had to be a first for any presidential candidate. Nor did she upgrade to cable television in order to follow the campaign from afar. Dean's own mother, an art appraiser in Manhattan, described his campaign effort as "preposterous, and besides, it's very expensive."
True, Howard Brush Dean III wasn't exactly a stranger to high society. His relatives came over on the Mayflower and hunted whales off of eastern Long Island. He'd grown up on Park Avenue in Manhattan, descended from a long lineage of Republican bond traders (his great-grandfather was a managing partner at Smith Barney), spent summers in the Hamptons (where his dominating father, Big Howard, played golf at the exclusive Maidstone Club), and attended a Waspy boarding school in Rhode Island and then Yale. Dean's grandmother asked Dorothy Wear Walker Bush, future grandmother to George W., to be a bridesmaid at her wedding. But after an uninspired stint at the white-shoe trading house Clark Dodge, Dean eschewed the stuffy corporate existence by moving to Vermont for his medical residency in 1978, taking up stock in the Green Mountain State. His neighbor Esther Sorrell happened to be the grande dame of the Vermont Democratic Party, which is how Dean got his start in the business, serving as a local precinct captain and rising through the ranks. A friend described him as "a member of the club with a strong fuck-you mentality."
Temperamentally, Dean was certainly more suited to the insurgent variety—frank, flinty, allergic to staying on script. He was the kind of guy who, though he could afford far better, drove a blue Chevy Malibu, rode a thirty-year-old mountain bike that his wife joked he'd bought for $10 at a garage sale, and painted his own house for relaxation, sometimes mixing paints to save money. His political consultant Steve McMahon recalled, upon first meeting him in 1992, that Dean was "remarkably and refreshingly honest and candid, and not a very snappy dresser. He didn't really fitthe stereotype of a politician as much as he fit the stereotype of a doctor."
Dean knew he'd be an underdog if he ran, and circumstances gave him little choice in the matter. He'd thought about running for president in 2000, but Al Gore put the kibosh on that one. Since then, he'd had some time to think about the matter, and knew full well the odds were steep and slanted. Only one insurgent candidate had captured his party's nomination and gone on to win the presidency in the past quarter century, and that was Jimmy Carter in 1976. As it happened, Dean had volunteered for Carter's campaigns in 1976 and 1980, and knew a thing or two about the man. He flew down to Georgia and consulted the former peanut farmer turned president, receiving what, by this time, could be considered predictable advice: go to Iowa.
It was Carter who put the Iowa caucus on the map, and that initial victory gave his campaign the instant credibility, money, and staff it so desperately needed. Dean knew that if he just did well enough in Iowa, he'd be in good shape in New Hampshire, where voters next door knew him. From then on, he reasoned, he could win a war of attrition against his opponents, competing in every state and going all the way to the convention if need be. He'd drive to every state himself if it came to that or fly cheaply on his favorite airline, Southwest, whose travel schedule he'd memorized.
Dean began the journey by following Carter's trail to the Hawkeye State. His closest confidante, Kate O'Connor, would also make the trip. They'd attend fund-raisers for local candidates, drop by a dinner for a county Democratic Party, meet with farmers and businessmen, try to do an interview or two with a small newspaper or radio host. "Who are you and why are you here?" would be the most common responses. To say they were winging it would've been an understatement. "We would go to Iowa and we wouldn't know anybody," O'Connor said. "People really did think we were insane."
Dean's travel habits were suited to life on the road; he packed sparsely, with a small carry-on bag, and, like Carter, stayed in supporters'houses, both to get to know the locals and to save money. If he had supporters in a given town, that is. At the time a lifelong technophobe, Dean eschewed a laptop or BlackBerry for a clunky cell phone, whose voice mail he sometimes had trouble accessing. Just like Carter, Dean stressed his distance from Washington and his record as governor—he'd balanced budgets in Vermont, given kids health care, and shifted the tax burden from poorer towns to wealthier ones in order to build better schools. What had his opponents done while Rome burned? Unlike his inside-the-Beltway competitors, Dean was sensible, honest, pragmatic. He wanted, he said, to be the candidate for "moderate Democrats, moderate Republicans and Independents," like John McCain in 2000.
In those early days, Dean was entirely unprepared for what would come next. Everybody was.
Everybody, perhaps, except for Trippi. He'd been dreaming up a radical campaign like this for a million years and was compelled to spread the news to anyone who would listen. Most chose to ignore him, as you would a crazy man on the corner ranting about the end-time. In a world of dapper political consultants, Trippi styled himself as a hopelessly shabby Don Quixote. Vermont congressman Peter Welch, who hosted the first strategy session for Dean at his apartment in Burlington, described Trippi as "the weirdest guy I've ever met in my life." While everyone else drank coffee and orange juice that morning, Trippi dipped on a can of Skoal and consumed what must have been a case of Diet Pepsi—a staple of any workday for him, Dean staffers soon learned.
Trippi loved romantic losers, quoted films about hapless underdogs, and, every four years, caught presidential fever like few in the business. He was there for Ted Kennedy in 1980 and Walter Mondale in 1984 and Gary Hart and Dick Gephardt in 1988 and Jerry Brown in 1992, when Governor Moonbeam raised $5 million in three weeks in $100 increments via an 800 number in a last-ditcheffort to stop Bill Clinton. Time called it "the Touch-Tone Rebellion," led by "Public Enemy No. 1 for Establishment Democrats."
In the 1990s, Trippi decamped to Silicon Valley and advised start-up tech companies, which opened his eyes to the possibility of using the Internet and technology to democratize politics. Meanwhile, back in Washington, Newt Gingrich and his band of suburban culture warriors grabbed the insurgent mantle, and Clinton spent the bulk of his eight years in office fighting for survival. The 1990s were not a good time for anti-establishment Democrats. In order to stay afloat and moderate the Democratic brand, Clinton cut deals with the Republican opposition on issues like taxes and welfare reform—a hallmark of his "Third Way" strategy of triangulation—invited wealthy businessmen to sleepovers in the Lincoln Bedroom to raise money, and brought in the widely reviled hatchet man Dick Morris to direct his reelection campaign. Clinton proved that he was a "different kind of Democrat," not like those tax-and-spend New Deal liberals—but at what cost? Clinton skillfully won two presidential elections, largely due to his own personal charisma, but his party shrank during his tenure in office, losing congressional seats, governors' offices, and state legislatures. After Clinton's election, Democrats controlled 57 seats in the Senate, 258 seats in the House, and 30 governorships. When he left office in January 2001, Democrats found themselves a lonely minority, holding 50 seats in the Senate, 212 in the House, and only 19 governorships.
Politics had become an unseemly business in both parties. Decade after decade, campaigns grew more and more expensive, while fewer and fewer people voted. Civic engagement was at an all-time low, a disturbing trend captured in works like Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone. "Our politics has been trivial and even stupid," E. J. Dionne Jr. wrote in his excoriating book Why Americans Hate Politics in 1991. "For most of us, politics is increasingly abstract, a spectator sport barely worth watching." The soap operas of the Clinton years did little to refute that notion. With their majorities relinquished and their hold on power increasingly tenuous, a growingnumber of Democrats felt that their party had lost its compass (and just maybe its soul). Those sentiments only grew bleaker after Democrats suffered an electoral massacre in 2002, and Democratic leaders in Congress lined up in support of George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq and post-9/11 policies. As Dean would later say, "Democrats are almost as angry at their own party in Washington as they are at George Bush."
Dean was hardly the first person you'd nominate to lead a political rebellion. During his twelve-year tenure as governor, he studiously read Foreign Affairs—the holy grail of elite foreign policy wisdom—and for most of his life he'd considered himself more of a hawk than a dove; sure, he'd protested the war in Vietnam like many of his peers and flirted with voting for Eldridge Cleaver, but he supported the first Gulf War and Clinton's interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo. And he was often the target of progressives in Vermont, who found him to be too stingy with the budget and unwilling to spend money on ambitious social programs. "The left was always mad at me for something," he said. Dean got his start in politics agitating for a bike path rather than protesting the spread of nuclear weapons or U.S. aggression in the Cold War. He became governor only when, as lieutenant governor, his Republican boss died of a heart attack in office. Dean was performing a physical when he heard the news, and calmly continued the procedure before rushing to the state capital of Montpelier. But perhaps because he became governor by accident, Dean wasn't congenitally afraid—as most politicians are—of taking a potentially unpopular position. After he signed a bill in 2000 establishing civil unions for gay couples in Vermont, he received death threats and was forced to wear a bulletproof vest that fall and summer as he traveled the state. At one stop near St. Albans, an elderly woman called him a "fucking queer-loving son of a bitch." Such taunts were good preparation for a presidential campaign.
After 9/11, Dean had taken to reading the Financial Times and The Guardian and noticed that the European press was far moreskeptical of the Bush administration's case for war—particularly the president's claims about Saddam Hussein's supposed weapons of mass destruction—than their American counterparts. Like a typical doctor, Dean did an examination and reached his diagnosis. If the evidence was, at best, mixed about Saddam's weapons program and ties to terrorists, then why was it so vital to unilaterally invade and occupy Iraq? Dean began to question whether Saddam indeed presented an imminent threat to America. "We cannot be successful in the long run by being unilateralist," he told the Concord Monitor editorial page as far back as December 2001, "and I think there's very little support among our allies for bombing Iraq."
As he kept speaking his mind, Dean marked a sharp break not just from his Democratic counterparts but also from the stage-managed and overproduced politics of the 1990s. As a governor, Dean had been a devoted Clintonite, but the times now called for a different approach. "What a lot of people learned from Bill Clinton is that if you accommodate and you co-opt, you can be successful," Dean said in the winter of 2003. "And Bill Clinton was very successful. But that role doesn't work for everybody, and it's not the right time for it anymore. It's a new time to be blunt, to be direct, and to stand up for what you believe. That's really the fault line—and the war is a piece of that."
His stance on the war suddenly made Dean relevant. And the Internet would soon grant him an audience and a platform the candidate could never have imagined. A new movement was about to emerge, but it was difficult to see it coming. The chaotic, unpredictable next year, full of exuberance and anguish, would have been impossible to script.
The all-powerful x factor for any would-be insurgent—a rush of positive publicity—swelled quickly after Dean's DNC speech, even though this was still well before the advent of You Tube. People began visiting the campaign's website in larger and larger numbers andasking to get involved in the campaign. Bands of committed supporters did one better and began organizing their own gatherings. If one had to put a date on when, precisely, Dean realized that the campaign was suddenly a whole lot bigger than he had ever anticipated, it was a couple of weeks after the DNC speech, on March 5, 2003.
That night, he looked down from the balcony of the Essex lounge in lower Manhattan and couldn't believe how many people were packed into the rectangular-shaped bar. Nor could he believe that a few hundred more had been denied entry outside, lingering in a block-and-a-half line on the streets of the Lower East Side. Dean was expecting sixty people, and more than eight hundred showed. "All of a sudden the lightbulb went off in my head that this was a real campaign," Dean said, "and my days of wandering aimlessly in living rooms were over." More amazingly, his campaign hadn't even put the gathering together. It was done by a group of volunteers through a then-obscure website called Meetup.com.
"You're number two in meetups," Kate O'Connor informed Dean one day.
"What's meetups?" Dean asked blankly.
O'Connor explained. A group of people signed up on a website based on their interests and then got together to discuss them. The site's cofounder Scott Heiferman first had the idea after watching The Lord of the Rings and realizing that fellow Tolkienites around the country had no way to discuss the travails of the Hobbit kingdom in person. The campaign figured Meetup could become a great way to identify a network of supporters, a good many of whom probably also happened to be Rings fans.
"Who's number one?" Dean asked.
"Witches," O'Connor responded. It had been a source of much consternation among Dean's Web team that the Wiccan coven still bested them.
News of the site spread like a game of telephone. O'Connor heard about Meetup from Trippi, who heard about it from a blogger named Jerome Armstrong, who heard about it from another blogger, AzizPoonawalla, a twenty-nine-year-old medical student in Texas who founded the first unofficial Dean blog and one day in January received an e-mail from a Meetup salesman. Trippi, who by March was up in Burlington running things, began pushing for the candidate to attend a big meetup in New York City, which would in turn inspire supporters in other cities and states to hold their own, generating press attention, money, and new recruits. He initially met resistance from some inside the campaign, who worried about holding a large event in the wake of the fire that killed ninety-six people at a Rhode Island nightclub, or preferred that Dean do a fund-raiser instead. There was also the question of how many people would show. A meetup in Manhattan the month before, wrote the organizer David Nir, an associate at a hedge fund, had drawn a "very good turnout" of "around fifteen people." Nir was planning another event for early March. Trippi figured that in the wake of the DNC speech, the crowds would grow exponentially. After the number of RSVPs passed three hundred, Dean's scheduler, Sarah Buxton, gave the okay. They planned it for a Wednesday, in the hopes of making The New York Times's influential Circuits column the next day.
That same week, the Bush administration continued to try to rustle up the votes for a second UN resolution to authorize an invasion of Iraq. General Richard Myers announced plans to "shock" Saddam Hussein into an early defeat. War seemed all but certain. "It is time for regime change," Dean told the boisterous crowd. "We need regime change in Washington!" No other major candidate at the time dared challenge the popular war president in such a confrontational manner. A week later, Trippi got his Circuits column, splashed across the front page of the Times's technology section. "Like Online Dating, with a Political Spin," the headline read. "We had intended to run this as a traditional campaign—an underdog campaign, but a traditional campaign," Dean later said. "But then the Internet exploded and became this enormous, growing phenomenon."
Soon after, Trippi made the Internet the centerpiece of the campaign,which had not exactly been tech savvy up to that point. The server was based out of Colorado, and you had to call one of two people in Denver to make any changes to the website, no matter how minuscule. Staffers called it "fishing in mud." There were separate unofficial Dean blogs but no central one. Everyone worked on clunky old PCs. All of this soon changed. Around Trippi sprung a legion of tech-savvy underlings who came to define the campaign, for better or worse. They all had stories of how they ended up in Burlington, as if it were akin to a pilgrimage to Mecca.
Matt Gross drove all the way from Utah, told Trippi he blogged for MyDD.com, and was hired as the campaign's blogger. Gray Brooks, a tall, blond Alabamian, deferred his sophomore year at Presbyterian College in South Carolina and became a programmer for the website. Nicco Mele tried and failed to get into the March meetup in New York, quit his job at Common Cause anyway, and became the campaign's Webmaster. Joe Rospars left a job and a girlfriend in Sweden to write e-mails and blog for the campaign. Zephyr Teachout, an iconoclastically named Utilitarian from Norwich, Vermont, made a flowchart one day of all the different ways she could change the world. She figured the Dean campaign was her best route, so she took a leave from work as a death penalty lawyer in Durham, North Carolina, and became the campaign's director of online organizing. On the outside, soon-to-be-influential young bloggers like Ezra Klein, Matt Yglesias, and Nico Pitney talked up and defended the candidate on a proliferation of blogs and websites.
All this technological innovation struck those who knew Dean as more than a little ironic. At the beginning of the campaign—before Trippi arrived—the candidate and his top advisers, de facto Luddites, didn't even know what a blog was.
One day in mid-February, Teachout, one of the campaign's first staffers, rushed excitedly into the office of Rick Ridder, Dean's campaign manager pre-Trippi. "Rick," she said, "Howard just blogged!" For the first time, Dean had posted a message to his supporters on the campaign's website.
"You mean clogged?" Ridder replied, thinking of an old-fashioned folk dance still practiced in Vermont. "I didn't know Howard knew how to dance."
"No," Teachout responded incredulously. "Blogged. As in Web log."
Dean walked into Ridder's tiny closet office a few minutes later. "I understand you're the first presidential candidate ever to blog," Ridder told his boss.
"Is that what I did?" Dean cluelessly responded.
Such was the birth of the Internet Campaign.
In early May, the campaign moved into a spacious new office in a nondescript section of suburban Burlington. The Internet was now the only thing Trippi wanted to talk about. He'd sit slouched in his office, behind a desk strewn with mounds of empty Diet Pepsi and Skoal cans, hunched over a laptop, scanning blogs and chatting with Dean supporters all day and night. In those days each department of the campaign wanted to control the website and nobody knew who was in charge. A heated turf war was about to ensue. On May 13, Trippi called a staff meeting for 10:00 p.m., a seemingly late hour for a crucial business meeting but standard fare on the sleep-deprived Dean campaign.
A dozen top staffers gathered in the sparsely decorated conference room, sitting on folding metal chairs around a cheap wood table. Trippi stood in front of a giant preinstalled whiteboard and for the first time mapped out a legitimate path to victory. He detailed how the campaign was going to use the Internet to raise unprecedented sums of money, attract an untold number of supporters, and win the primary by bypassing traditional political channels in the media and fund-raising world. "We're gonna make history," Trippi said. "People might laugh at us now, but we're gonna build something bigger than ourselves." His scribbling—lines and lines that arched into the distance—looked like incoherent scrawl to a casual observer, but everyone in the drab conference room got themessage. "That was a critical moment," Mele said, "because everyone got on the same page." After the meeting, Trippi created a PowerPoint presentation based on the talk, traveling around the country trying to spread the gospel of a new political model to skeptical political insiders. "Everybody I gave the presentation to looked at me like I was from Mars and probably on massive quantities of hallucinogenic drugs," he told The New Republic.
Trippi was particularly obsessed with MoveOn.org as a guiding light. MoveOn launched during the Clinton impeachment hearings but came of age and grew rapidly because of its organized opposition to the war in Iraq. "There is no way to understate the importance of what MoveOn and its members proved—that the net can be used to mobilize huge numbers of grassroots to take local action beyond their monitors," Trippi wrote in a campaign blog. They'd also raised $4 million for political candidates during the 2002 campaign, an impressive sum at a time when the Internet was just emerging as a fund-raising source. "They raised a lot of fucking money on the Internet and nobody else had," Mele said. Trippi called MoveOn's San Francisco-based founder, Wes Boyd, and twenty-two-year-old campaigns director, Eli Pariser, constantly for advice. Technically, MoveOn offered to help all the Democratic candidates, but only Trippi took them up on the offer. Soon enough, MoveOn's organizing director, Zack Exley, was dispatched to Burlington. The emergence of a new liberal power center, galvanized by the likes of MoveOn, both complemented and enabled the rise of the Dean campaign.
Thus began a remarkable spring and summer, when the campaign built a plethora of new tools that would fundamentally change political campaigns and the nature of public communication. "It was the most amazingly inventive, creative, intense, stressful, but exciting period during the campaign," Teachout said. "I'd argue that in those four months, all the seeds of what then became the Obama campaign were created." Soon enough, Dean supporters could plan events online and invite other Dean supporters in their area (a precursor to Obama's my.barackobama.com), create their ownprofile page on a website and network with other activists (a precursor to Facebook), follow speeches by the candidate and upload their own content to the campaign's website (a precursor to YouTube), call a list of targeted voters anywhere in the country from their own homes (technology that would become standard fare four years later), and receive campaign information via cell phone text messages (ditto). Never before had ordinary campaign supporters had so much power. Suddenly they went from passive consumers to active organizers. A grassroots army could be fielded in ways previously unimaginable. Building a "party of the people" was no longer a theoretical or purely aspirational undertaking. "Trippi knew that he had unleashed something potentially dramatic and unpredictable," Steve Grossman said. "It's like if you're in a chemistry laboratory and you're fooling around with unstable compounds. You know that you could blow up the lab, you know that somewhere in the back of your mind you are playing with fire, but you're driven to do it because you're pushing the frontiers of chemistry and science." A volatile experiment was under way.
When Colorado senator Gary Hart ran for president in 1984, nearly upsetting former vice president Walter Mondale in the Democratic primary, he talked about what he termed the "politics of concentric circles." Hart would drop a pebble in a certain place—finding a dynamic organizer in a given town or state—and watch the movement ripple out in waves. Hart's dictum made a lasting impression on Trippi, even though he worked for Mondale at the time. It seemed a perfect way to run a successful insurgency—"you could spread a candidate or a cause or an issue like a virus—starting with a small, key group of people and let them run wild," he wrote. "Unfortunately, back then there was no tool that would help you create the momentum." Thanks to the growth of the Internet, the Dean campaign was able to undertake what Trippi called "concentric circles on steroids."
To be sure, there had been plenty of innovation in political campaigns—particularly on the presidential level—before the Dean campaign. JFK conquered the television era in 1960, and Richard Nixon struck back eight years later by hiring slick Madison Avenue admen to produce his campaign commercials and rebrand him as the "New Nixon." George McGovern's campaign discovered in 1972 that a direct-mail solicitation could yield hundreds of thousands of dollars in small donations, a trend the Republicans soon took advantage of and surpassed Democrats at. Twenty years later, Bill Clinton's brash, jean-jacket-wearing young advisers pioneered the hard-hitting style of "war room" rapid-response communication in the age of cable news. A WWF wrestler named Jesse Ventura got himself elected governor of Minnesota in 1998 by almost exclusively using e-mail to attract supporters to his unorthodox campaign. John McCain raised $2 million in two days over the Internet after winning the New Hampshire primary in 2000. All of these were thought of as major developments at the time. Yet at the beginning of the new millennium, the Internet remained a primitive medium, and TV consultants and megadonors still prevailed.
On June 17, 2003, George W. Bush kicked off his reelection campaign with a $2,000-a-head cocktail reception at the Washington Hilton featuring the city's top corporate lobbyists and Republican fund-raisers, whom Bush, in a classic Freudian slip, once referred to as "my base." Each "Ranger" pledged to raise $200,000 for the campaign, toward an end goal of a $200 million war chest. That night alone, Bush netted $3.5 million, and his two-week fund-raising tour had just begun. That money gave the Republicans a marked advantage. Even before Bush's fund-raising spree, Republicans out-raised Democrats in every dollar amount except donations of $1 million and above. Thanks to the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill of 2002, which outlawed unlimited "soft money" contributions, Democrats lost that lone advantage too. Republican election lawyers referred to McCain-Feingold as "the DemocraticParty suicide bill" and predicted they'd out-raise and outspend Democrats for decades to come.
Back in Burlington, Trippi calculated how many rubber-chicken dinners the Dean campaign would have to hold in order to even come close to matching Bush. Suffice it to say, the poultry industry would've made a fortune. If the campaign did things the way they'd always been done, Bush would make a laughingstock of whoever became the Democratic nominee. Trippi reasoned, from a purely tactical perspective, that the campaign had no choice but to go an unconventional route.
On June 23, 2003, Dean stood before a sea of five thousand supporters in downtown Burlington and officially announced his candidacy, unveiling a new campaign slogan, "You Have the Power," as in, "you have the power to take our country back." What seemed like feel-good hippie talk to his opponents resonated among Dean supporters, who liked the fact that he was challenging the powers that be in both parties. "Our founders have implored that we were not to be the new Rome," Dean said in his announcement speech. "We are not to conquer and suppress other nations to submit to our will. We are to inspire them."
That Tuesday, following the speech, $300,000 came in over the Internet. The same thing happened Wednesday and Thursday. On Friday, the campaign put up a picture of a baseball bat—a soon-to-be-familiar motif—to measure the progress, with a goal of $4.5 million for the end of the month. When the take jumped to $6.5 million over the weekend, Dean thought the website had been hacked. On the last night of the fund-raising quarter—numbers closely monitored by political operatives and campaign reporters, dollars being the only language Washington really understands—$828,000 poured in, with an average donation of $112. "End of Story, Howard Dean Is the Story," National Journal's insider rag, The Hotline, declared. He was now irrefutably a contender, and quite possibly his party's nominee. It sent "shockwaves through the entire Democratic Party in June when that money all came in," Trippi said. If two million peopleeach gave $100, the campaign could match Bush. That idea—stunningly simple yet profoundly ambitious—became the mantra for the Dean campaign and the small-donor revolution that would follow.
Over the Fourth of July weekend, Dean's pollster, Paul Maslin, a thirty-year veteran of the business, called up Trippi. "Joe, you know what this is, don't you?" Maslin told him. "This isn't Jimmy Carter or George McGovern or Jerry Brown or Ross Perot or any of the analogies people are making. You know who this is?"
"Yeah, I know exactly who," Trippi responded. "It's Andrew Jackson."
"If we really pulled this off," Maslin said, "you'd have the equivalent of that scene where Andrew Jackson becomes president and the people just break down the fence at the White House and say, 'This is our place.'"
Of course, Dean repelled as many people as he excited, most notably those Democrats accustomed to running the show inside Washington. Talk of a populist revolt sent shivers down the spine of Al From and Bruce Reed, leaders of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC). "What activists like Dean call the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party is an aberration: the McGovern-Mondale wing, defined principally by weakness abroad and elitist, interest-group liberalism at home," From and Reed wrote in a fiery memo titled "The Real Soul of the Democratic Party" on May 15, 2003. Four days later, after Dean won the endorsement of the 1.5-million-member public employees union AFSCME, the DLC denounced the union as "fringe activists."
Since its founding in 1985, the DLC existed to break the power of liberal interest groups inside the Democratic Party and attract support from the business community. Former congressional aide Al From aggressively expanded what had been an informal caucus of southern and western congressmen into a $7-million-a-yearoperation at its peak in 2000. By that time it had five thousand members, and politicians, policy wonks, and lobbyists flocked to its annual summit. The DLC's support for free-market policies (and the money that brought in from major corporations) and its early media savvy enticed an ambitious young Arkansas governor into becoming its chair in 1990. After Bill Clinton's election, DLC strategists Bill Galston, Elaine Kamarck, and Bruce Reed became top domestic policy aides in the White House. When Newt Gingrich took over the House in 1994, From instructed Democrats to move to the right and "get with the [DLC] program." The DLC quickly became the new Washington establishment, launching state chapters, creating the New Democratic Coalition in Congress, and expanding its Progressive Policy Institute think tank. A top aide to Jesse Jackson groused of Clinton's Democratic Party, "The DLC has taken it over."
The DLC's accommodationist instincts—Clinton's strategy of triangulation was all about peeling off core Republican positions—led them years later to emerge as a key supporter of the war in Iraq. At a ceremony at the Rose Garden announcing the war resolution, current and former DLC chairmen Evan Bayh, Joe Lieberman, and Dick Gephardt flanked President Bush. No candidate embodied the DLC's ethos better than the hawkish Lieberman, who shared a pollster—the cantankerous Mark Penn—with the organization. During the campaign, the DLC, Lieberman, and Penn became Dean's sharpest and most vocal critics. "A Dean nomination could again mean Democrats lose 49 out of 50 states," Penn told Newsweek, without acknowledging why his own candidate was floundering in the polls. Indiana senator Evan Bayh echoed this broader ideological attack, proclaiming: "The Democratic Party is at risk of being taken over from the far left."
Ironically, in 1996 the DLC had praised the reelection of "the centrist Gov. Howard Dean" as indicative of blossoming "New Democratic leadership." Indeed, Dean didn't fit neatly into any prearranged ideological boxes, which helped explain why he was becoming so popular. He was socially liberal, fiscally conservative,opposed to the war in Iraq but generally hawkish on foreign policy, and had been endorsed in Vermont by the National Rifle Association and the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws (NARAL). Slate noted that during the campaign he'd drawn comparisons to just about every possible candidate, including Bill Clinton, John McCain, Jimmy Carter, George McGovern, Harry Truman, and even Ronald Reagan. When Dean talked about representing the "Democratic wing of the Democratic Party," he meant standing up for some basic principles rather than pushing the party far to the left. The criticism of Dean by DLC types led some political analysts to wonder whether the DLC's animosity was more about power than ideology. "Mr. From fancies himself a kingmaker," wrote Wall Street Journal columnist Al Hunt, "and Dr. Dean hasn't supped sufficiently at his table."
Dean had become the messenger for a much bigger battle. "I knew very well that if I was going to be the front-runner, everybody was going to do everything they could to get rid of me," Dean said. "I had no connection to Washington, and I was the biggest insult you could have—an outside-the-Beltway guy who didn't want to play by the Washington rules."
The staggering amount of money that poured in over the Internet after his official announcement speech—in three months Dean raised more cash than he expected to amass during his entire run—allowed the campaign to do things that heretofore seemed both illogical and impossible. From the very beginning of his bid, Dean wanted to build an organization in all fifty states. "I didn't need fifteen or twenty percent in the polls," he said. "All I needed was twenty-five people in each state who would organize, and that would be enough." Vermont can be a pretty isolating place, but as far back as 1997 Dean traveled frequently to far-flung red states as chairman of the Democratic Governors Association. "We've got to go to the places where nobody else goes," he told O'Connor. He figured theseappearances would boost local Democratic parties and candidates, give him a foothold in states no other presidential aspirant bothered to visit, and help his campaign once the race got past Iowa and New Hampshire and became a battle for delegates. Certainly no other presidential hopeful was crazy enough in May 2002 to attend the Wyoming Democratic Party's annual convention at the Outlaw Inn in Rock Springs. Dean returned to the Cowboy State two months later as part of another tour through the West, also hitting Colorado, Idaho, and Nebraska.
At the start of the campaign, crisscrossing the country didn't strike Dean's advisers as a very practical idea. "We literally had like $100,000 in the bank, and Howard wanted to have campaign managers in all fifty states," Trippi recalled, laughing. As a response to Dean's stubborn insistence, Trippi wrote a memo to the campaign staff arguing that "few successful national campaigns have garnered that success by embarking on a full blown fifty-state strategy. The demand on time and resources has almost always led to failure." In his office, Trippi scribbled four things on a giant whiteboard: Iowa, New Hampshire, Internet, and $. "If you came in to talk to him about anything else, he said 'Get the fuck out of my office,'" said his deputy, Paul Blank. "And believe me, he didn't say it nicely."
But as donations skyrocketed and supporters flooded the website, Dean's implausible fantasy suddenly became a workable concept. Soon enough, this fifty-state strategy became a badge of honor inside the campaign, another symbol of how Dean was running a different kind of campaign. As e-mails poured into headquarters, local volunteers were asked to begin organizing their states by holding meetups and recruiting more volunteers. Zephyr Teachout called it "hiring people for free." The campaign as a whole still focused primarily on Iowa and New Hampshire, but broadening beyond the usual battlegrounds gave Dean the tactical advantage of being organized in places his opponents were not—generating a ton of press and money as a result—and took on the larger significanceof involving people in places the party had long ago written off. "The campaign got so much excitement everywhere that you had to have a fifty-state strategy," explained Blank, "because how could you turn down all these people who were excited about politics for the first time ever just because they lived in Montana? That's ridiculous. So we had to get them involved, and that's where technology was so helpful, because it meant they could get involved."
In August 2003, when George Bush retired to Crawford for his summer vacation, the campaign made a surprise decision to place a TV ad in Bush's backyard. Looking relaxed in a blue oxford shirt, Dean stood behind a row of trees and looked directly into the camera. "In the past two and a half years we've lost over two and a half million jobs," he said. "And has anybody really stood up against George Bush and his policies? Don't you think it's time somebody did?" The ad ran only in Austin and cost less than $200,000 to produce and air. Nonetheless, it generated a torrent of publicity for the campaign and $1 million in donations over the Internet. Texas became Dean's latest red-state obsession. Later that month, he visited both Austin and San Antonio on the Sleepless Summer Tour, drawing huge crowds. "In Dean, some backers see hope for Texas' ailing Democratic Party," the Austin American-Statesman reported. At the end of September, five hundred Texans spent a weekend knocking on doors in Iowa and New Hampshire, sharing their firsthand stories of disgust with George W. Bush. That same weekend, the campaign set the Guinness world record for conference calls, connecting 3,557 different phones in all fifty states. By early fall, Dean got his wish, and the campaign hired organizers in the states following Iowa and New Hampshire on the primary calendar: Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Michigan, Washington, Wisconsin, and Oregon.
Along with attempting to reshape the political map, the Dean campaign strived to reinvent the everyday practice of politics, fusing thebirth of the new with the renaissance of the old. In many ways, grassroots organizing dates back to the beginning of the American Revolution and formed the bedrock of political campaigns until the spread of television. But during the TV era, old-school organizing went out of style. Political consultants who made their fortunes off thirty-second ads—and politicians and pollsters who loved the instant gratification of television—now dominated the landscape. Then-journalist Sidney Blumenthal called these consultants "the new political bosses." Paradoxically, it took the emergence of the Internet—a medium everyone thought would turn its users into antisocial automatons—to make old-school organizing relevant again and reestablish the sense of community that TV destroyed. Few people knew this storied world better than Marshall Ganz, a rotund, mustachioed sixty-year-old lecturer of public policy at Harvard University and expert on community organizing who became a key figure in the Dean campaign.
In the summer of 2003, Karen Hicks, the state director for Dean in New Hampshire, went to see Ganz in Cambridge. Hicks—a thirty-four-year-old native of Concord and a live free, die hard veteran of Granite State politics—had been running a pretty traditional campaign, relying on underpaid college students to knock on doors in support of Dean. Unfortunately, even though New Hampshire bordered Vermont, few voters in the first primary state knew who Dean was back then or were prepared to commit to his campaign. After knocking on seventeen thousand doors during the spring and summer, the campaign netted only three hundred new supporters, a horrendous return rate.
Hicks had thrown her support behind Dean, and not an established candidate like Kerry or Gephardt, in part because she wanted to try something new. She'd spent the 2002 cycle working on the Senate campaign of former New Hampshire governor Jeanne Shaheen, who ran against freshman incumbent John Sununu. It was a nasty, multimillion-dollar race, with attack ads on both sides. Shaheen lost by twenty thousand votes, and a GOP political operativelater went to jail for jamming the phone lines in Shaheen headquarters on Election Day. When it was all over, Hicks realized, "we had increased the bar on cynicism rather than invite more people in." After the election, she went to India for six weeks and lounged on the beach in Goa, detoxing. Shaheen became national cochair of Kerry's campaign, and most of her campaign staff followed suit.
When Hicks returned, she heard all the candidates speak, but only Dean moved her. She first heard him at a house party in Concord hosted by Gary Hirshberg, the president of Stonyfield Farm yogurt, a local New Hampshire institution. "I remember being just shocked," Hicks remembers. "Literally, I went ahhh"—she grabbed her throat and inhaled deeply for emphasis—"when he was speaking. At that time nobody was saying anything close to what he was saying." She wanted to run a campaign that matched the unconventionality of the candidate and the grassroots energy he'd unleashed. "I knew I wanted to do something different, but I didn't really know what or how."
That's how she and her deputy Tom Hughes ended up having coffee with Ganz at Henrietta's Table in Cambridge.
"We're not getting the numbers we need," she told him. "What if we tried community organizing?"
"Oh, that would be interesting," Ganz responded. "We haven't done that for a while in electoral politics."
Not since the 1980s, when he'd helped elect a promising California liberal named Nancy Pelosi to the U.S. House of Representatives. Phillip Burton, his brother John, and his wife, Sala Burton, had represented San Francisco's Fifth Congressional District since 1964. In 1987, before Sala passed away in office, she named Pelosi as her designated successor, though she still faced a stiff challenge from San Francisco supervisor Harry Britt, a mainstay in the city's influential gay community. Pelosi had no organization, so Ganz and his partner Paul Milne decided to hold house meetings in the city to spread the word of her candidacy, a grassroots model pioneered by César Chávez and the United Farm Workers. "We had eighty-one house meetingsin three weeks, and she went to seventy-nine of them," Ganz recalled. Pelosi won the special election narrowly, by 4 percent.
The idea of house meetings came from Chávez's mentor, Fred Ross Sr., a protégé of legendary Chicago community organizer Saul Alinsky. At the time, Ross and Chávez were trying to get Mexican-Americans in Los Angeles to join the Community Service Organization, a precursor to the United Farm Workers of America. The predominant organization in the area, the Catholic Church, opposed the union. So Ross and Chávez started holding house meetings "to go direct to the people," Ganz said. In a sense, house meetings created a social network long before so-called social-networking tools, like Facebook, existed. That's what Ganz wanted to do in New Hampshire for Dean.
Ganz grew up the son of a rabbi in Bakersfield, California, and headed east to Harvard in 1960. He dropped out in 1964 and became an organizer with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the campus arm of the civil rights movement, in McComb, Mississippi—the site of SNCC's first voter-registration drive. He lived with a black family in a KKK stronghold near the Louisiana border, registered voters for the integrated Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (the reigning state Democratic Party was aligned with segregationist Dixiecrats), and taught Sunday school at the Sweet Home Baptist Church. The Klan in Mississippi famously lynched three college students that year, and there were twenty-four bombings in McComb alone. Ganz had a front-row seat to the violence and injustice that marked the struggle for political power in America, forever changing the way he saw the country. He called it "Mississippi eyes."
In 1965, he returned to Bakersfield. Thirty miles north, thirty-eight-year-old César Chávez was leading striking farmworkers, agitating for a union and basic political rights. Ganz joined Chávez as an SNCC representative. In 1968 they organized East Los Angeles for Bobby Kennedy in the California primary, proving that long-disenfranchised minority voters could be a force in electoral politics.Ganz helped transform the United Farm Workers into one of the most politically astute unions in California, then started his own organizing institute, but soon became dismayed by the rise of the "consultocracy." In 1980, for example, Democrat Alan Cranston spent $2.5 million on a winning Senate campaign in California. By 1986, Cranston had unloaded $20 million on his reelection. Pollsters and admen dominated the process, squeezing out organizers like Ganz, who made a living the old-fashioned way, talking to people. Ganz quit politics altogether in 1991 and went back to Harvard to resume his studies and teach. There was no place for him in the money-infested Democratic Party of the 1990s. "I never got Clinton," he said. "It was just never there for me."
It wasn't until Dean that he became reengaged with politics and the Democratic Party. In 2003, he kept hearing his students talk about the insurgent governor from Vermont. "It was clear there was this kind of energy that, to me, resonated with my experience back in the sixties," he said. When he asked his students why they liked Dean so much, it was all about one thing, he remembers: courage. "Dean was the one guy who said the emperor had no clothes," Ganz said, "and everybody else was chickenshit." He agreed to help.
On a scorching weekend that July, Hicks, Ganz, and all the principals of the Dean campaign in New Hampshire gathered for a retreat at the Browne Center in Durham, a bucolic town on the Oyster River. Campaign staffers slept and worked in small, spartan wooden yurts in the woods and showered at the local gym. Standing in an exceedingly warm, thirty-foot-wide circular room, Ganz plastered the walls with a series of large charts describing the building blocks of community organizing. He told his own story and asked those assembled to tell theirs, explaining how the campaign would be different from now on. "Organizing is not about marketing an idea as a cause or a service to customers," he said. "It is about entering into a relationship with one's fellow citizens."
Dean staffers would identify local leaders in New Hampshire through one-on-one sessions, recruiting top supporters, who wouldthen invite fifty people or so over for a house meeting. They'd watch a short New Hampshire Public Television special about the candidate, and then the organizer and the host would tell their stories of how they came to work on behalf of Dean. "The story," as Ganz called it, was the most important part of the meeting, "a connection between the activist, the organizer and the campaign," Ganz said, and the vehicle through which the Dean campaign could build enduring relationships and multiply the number of committed supporters in a way no other campaign could. At their best, these meetings combined the social atmosphere of a Tupperware party with the intimate fervor of a church.
It took a while for organizers on the campaign to grasp this different kind of model. "They'd been told, well, organizers have no personality, and what you do is just carry the message of the candidate," Ganz said. "I was saying the opposite, 'No, you draw on your own experience, you establish relationships.'" Two of Ganz's graduate students, Lauree Hayden and Jeremy Bird, became top organizers on the campaign, covering New Hampshire's two sprawling congressional districts. Like their mentor, neither took a conventional route to politics, especially Bird, a bespectacled, hyperactive twenty-five-year-old. Hicks thought it was hilarious that when Bird joined the campaign, he thought GOTV—"get out the vote," the most common of political acronyms—stood for "go on TV."
Bird told his personal story at meeting after meeting. He grew up in a trailer park in High Ridge, Missouri, an outer-ring suburb of St. Louis, where his mom was a secretary at a high school and his dad a janitor at a gas station. They were conservative Southern Baptists who didn't much care for politics. Around the kitchen table, the family talked about how they were going to pay for groceries or send the kids to a doctor. As a child Bird needed Forrest Gump-style leg braces, but his parents couldn't afford them. "The kid's not too clumsy, he'll be okay," the doctor assured them. Quite taken with the church, Bird won a scholarship to Wabash College, a nine-hundred-person all-male school in the woods of Crawfordsville,Indiana, where he studied religion and aspired to be a missionary. In 1999, he studied abroad in Israel at the University of Haifa. At the time, Ehud Barak was running for prime minister against the hardliner Benjamin Netanyahu, and the intense support for Barak on college campuses left an impression on Bird. "Most people go to the Middle East to find religion," he said. "I found politics."
He decided to attend Harvard Divinity School, with the goal of one day doing conflict resolution overseas. In 2003, he took Ganz's class Organizing: People, Power, and Change. Ganz required all his students to volunteer in the community, and Bird linked up with the Boston Youth Organizing Project, based in the tough, working-class neighborhoods of Roxbury and Dorchester. He helped forty or so kids fight for better funding for the area's crumbling schools. When Boston mayor Tom Menino ignored their request, Bird and the students directly lobbied Boston's city council, convincing them to veto Menino's budget and add $11 million in education funding. It was Bird's first experience with community organizing, and it opened his eyes to the possibilities of the work. "It was a formative experience," he said. "I always wonder, if it had been an utter failure, would I have been like, 'Oh, organizing, that doesn't work.'"
In March 2003, Bird heard Dean speak at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston. "I thought he was honest and he spoke to a lot of frustration that I had toward the Bush administration at the time," he said. He graduated from Harvard that summer and went to New Hampshire to work for Dean full-time, overseeing the entirety of western New Hampshire, the political hub of Manchester, and the coastal bedroom communities on the southeast tip of the state. Instead of sitting in an office and supervising a bunch of deputies, he went to more house meetings than practically anyone. "Jeremy was going to be a priest," Hicks liked to say, "but we converted him to Howard Dean."
Stories like Bird's, defined by improbability and seemingly immovable obstacles—much like the birth of the Dean campaign itself—gave the house meetings their power. The Washington Postlikened them to a "secular tent revival, winning over individual souls one at a time." As with a church service, becoming a believer required a bit of a leap of faith. Hicks wasn't sure if the strategy would work, but Kerry had sucked up most of the traditional power players anyway, so it couldn't hurt to try. With an added boost from the Internet, which helped voters find the events and allowed the campaign to closely monitor who attended, house meetings spread like wildfire throughout the state in a span of just a few months. A third of New Hampshire voters, one poll found, reported being invited to a Dean meeting. By the end of November, the campaign had held its thousandth event. For the first time in many years, the organizers and the supporters, rather than just the candidate, became the stars of the campaign. Dean's mantra of empowerment had finally found its organizational expression.
Unfortunately for Dean, Iowa came before New Hampshire.
On a rainy, unpleasantly windy Saturday in September, three thousand Iowa Democrats gathered twenty miles south of Des Moines in a gigantic hot-air-balloon field for Senator Tom Harkin's annual Steak Fry. Iowans like their food fried. The Iowa State Fair featured such delicacies as fried Mars bars, fried Twinkies, and fried pickles. So what better way to kick off the fall season of the Democratic primaries than over a plate of panfried steak, baked beans, and potato salad?
Bill Clinton first spoke at the Steak Fry in the fall of 1992, a boyish young governor in a pink and green plaid shirt spinning folksy yarns. He came back four years later during his reelection campaign. And there he was on September 13, 2003, dominating the spotlight and overshadowing the would-be applicants for his former job. Clinton appeared relaxed in a denim shirt and blue jeans, voice slightly hoarse with age. Unlike in 2000, when Al Gore barely mentioned his name on the campaign trail, each of the candidates praised Clinton and his legacy. "I am tired of Democrats walking away from BillClinton and Al Gore," said John Edwards. "I think they're both going to help us a lot," Dean echoed. Clinton went out of his way to praise all of the candidates, but Dean's advisers couldn't shake the feeling that Clinton preferred the one candidate who was not there: former NATO supreme commander Wesley Clark, who was due to enter the race any day. "Folks, go ahead and fall in love, be for somebody," Clinton told the crowd. "But when the primaries are over, let's fall in line." That sentence, in particular, aroused a great deal of suspicion among Dean supporters. "It was hard to mistake that for anything other than a shot across our bow," wrote Dean pollster Paul Maslin, "and in our minds it clearly indicated that Clinton was, as the rumor mill suggested, secretly pushing for General Clark."
In fact, as Dean gained steam, it was hardly a secret that Bill and Hillary had encouraged the worldly, photogenic general to enter the race. "Bill particularly was clearly talking up his virtue," super-lawyer Alan Dershowitz reported after seeing Clinton in Martha's Vineyard. "You could tell he was Bill's kind of guy." Upon Clark's entrance into the race, Clinton's former campaign chairman Mickey Kantor immediately signed on as a top adviser, as did former Clinton adviser Rahm Emanuel. In his book You Have the Power, Dean tells the story of how Clinton called up a friend and told him: "I need you to be for Wes Clark ... I'm from Arkansas and Wes is from Arkansas, we need to be for Wes." The friend said that he was supporting the Vermont governor. "Dean forfeited his right to run for president when he signed the civil unions bill," Clinton replied. "He can't win."
Much of Clinton's former circle went to work either for Clark or against Dean. Chris Lehane, Clinton's top spokesman at the DNC, did both. A combative thirty-six-year-old, Lehane specialized in the war room clashes of the 1990s, defending Clinton from the "vast right-wing conspiracy" (he coined the phrase for Hillary) and earning a reputation as a "master of disaster." Lehane started out with John Kerry but quit when the candidate wouldn't step up his attacks on Dean. He later joined the Clark campaign and arrived inWashington in early December with a three-ring binder of damaging material on the Vermont governor, which he circulated to influential political reporters. "The Clark campaign did not single-handedly destroy Dean," The Atlantic's Josh Green later concluded, "but [it] could certainly be charged with aiding and abetting Dean's collapse."
Lehane was hardly alone. Clinton's most famous political consultant, James Carville, lobbed bombs at Dean on a nightly basis from his perch on CNN's Crossfire. Newsweek called Carville "dean of the 'Stop Dean' spinners." "No Democrats closely associated with the Clintons are working for the Dean campaign," The New Republic reported. "In fact, it's hard to find a Clintonite who speaks favorably of the former Vermont governor. This evident schism is not just about Dean's opposition to the war—or even his prospects in the general election. It's a turf war to decide who will control the future of the party."
Dean, throughout his years in politics, had been close to Clinton. In February 1992, when Clinton's campaign was reeling in New Hampshire following the release of a letter expressing his opposition to the draft in Vietnam and revelations of an alleged affair with Gennifer Flowers, Dean—at the time a political novice—endorsed the Arkansas governor. Hillary traveled to Vermont to accept the endorsement. From that point on, Clinton became Dean's political role model. Both were moderate governors from small, rural states who supported balanced budgets, free trade, the death penalty, and welfare reform, often drawing the ire of their more progressive constituents. "I was a triangulator before Clinton was a triangulator," Dean said. But as he thought about running for president, Dean became convinced that the times required a fresh approach. "Bill Clinton got us back to the White House," Dean said, "then we needed to remember why we were there." Clinton's loyalists, in Dean's view, had trouble adapting to a new era in politics. "The problem is, after they won in '92, they didn't change. And time passes on and, you know, it was a different America."
Two Democratic parties had emerged over the course of the 2004 primary: one led by the Clinton wing and Washington Democrats who rallied around Clark, Kerry, Gephardt, Edwards, and Lieberman; and another allied with Dean, the emerging "netroots," and dissident members of the political establishment. The American Prospect dubbed them "the New New Democrats." So it came as quite a surprise when Al Gore, a longtime member of the former group, announced he was siding with the latter.
Dean had never been personally close to Gore. In December 1997, Dean went to see the vice president at the White House and told him he was considering running for president in 2000. Gore reacted coldly to the news, but Dean, naively, asked that the conversation remain between the two of them. Before Dean's plane had touched down in Vermont, Gore's aides had leaked the news of Dean's budding presidential ambitions to the Vermont press. Vermonters were furious that Dean was preparing to abandon the governorship, and his poll numbers plummeted. Dean quickly put his presidential bid on hold and endorsed Gore in 2000 before the New Hampshire primary. When he did run for president, Dean called Gore often for advice. At the campaign's urging, Dean's supporters also wrote Gore handwritten letters asking for his endorsement. Finally, Gore told Dean at the end of a forty-five-minute phone conversation from Tokyo on December 5, 2003: "I've decided I want to endorse you."
Four days later, just half a block from Bill Clinton's Harlem office, Gore, looking comfortably beefy in a black suit and blue tie, clasped hands with Dean. "Howard Dean," Gore declared, "really is the only candidate who has been able to inspire, at the grassroots level all over this country, the kind of passion and enthusiasm for democracy and change and transformation of America that we need in this country." Gore made it clear he was endorsing not only the candidate but also the new style of politics embodied by Dean's campaign. "We need to remake the Democratic Party; we need to remake America; we need to take it back on behalf of the people ofthis country," he said. If you were paying attention to politics in the Bush era, Gore's endorsement of Dean made sense. After all, Gore had opposed the war in Iraq, criticized the Patriot Act, and given a series of highly touted speeches before MoveOn.org. Still, it was a bracing moment, a passing of the torch from one leader of the party to another.
In early January 2004, Trippi, the political consultant Tom Ochs, and a sardonic, mustachioed Chicago reporter turned political strategist in a schlumpy red sweater and baseball cap named David Axelrod sat in the dark, mahogany-paneled bar of the Hotel Fort Des Moines, the premier watering hole for politicos in the state. That day, Bill Bradley had just endorsed Dean in Manchester, adding yet more gravitas to his juggernaut campaign. Axelrod had been working for John Edwards but was in the process of being pushed out because of strategic differences with the candidate's wife, Elizabeth. Over red wine and beers, the three old pros shared war stories from the business and talked about the unexpected rise of the Dean campaign. As far as the other campaigns were concerned, Axelrod said, Dean was "a pimple on the ass of progress." The recent Gore endorsement had only made Dean more of a marked man. Yet it was clear that Axelrod had been paying close attention to Dean's unorthodox campaign. The Chicagoan had worked for both Clintons and flew down to Nashville in September 2002 when Gore was deciding whether to run for president again. "He said, 'Look, if I run for president,' and he started outlining his campaign," Axelrod told Trippi and Ochs. "He said, 'I'm not gonna take any contributions over some figure.' He said, 'I think you can raise a lot of money over the Internet. I'm gonna take some positions that you traditionally can't take.' He completely described what you guys are doing."
Axelrod saw the potential of this new politics outlined by Gore and put into motion by Dean. "You guys are the Green Bay Packers of politics," Axelrod said. "Everybody owns a share. I think you gota base of people who feel a total sense of ownership ... They get it. The big question for you guys is, will it play that way in the universe at large?"
In 1988, Axelrod worked on the presidential campaign of Illinois senator Paul Simon, a morally upright, avuncular intellectual. Axelrod ran ads in Iowa showing cartoons of Simon with his bow tie and horn-rimmed glasses, turning his bookishness into an asset. Though never a favorite, Simon narrowly lost to Gephardt in the caucus that year. "I think people are so resistant to the politics of bullshit that authenticity is enormously important," Axelrod said he learned. "That's why McCain did well, that's why you guys are doing so well. I just don't know how far you can ride that."
Axelrod's newest client, a young state senator from the South Side of Chicago, also kept an eye on the Dean campaign during his run for the Illinois Senate. In August 2003, Dean stopped in Chicago to raise some money. While in town he called in to a popular radio show, Beyond the Beltway, hosted by radio veteran Bruce DuMont. In the studio that day sat Barack Obama, looking relaxed in a black blazer and white shirt. When Dean called in, DuMont put Obama on the line.
"Congratulations to you," Dean told Obama. "I see a lot of people around with Obama buttons on. I didn't know who you were until I saw those buttons and asked."
Obama smiled widely. "I like that," he said. "I like that." He then told Dean, "You were out front in opposition to Bush's policies in Iraq and I actually share many of your views." In the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, Obama also opposed the war, saying at an antiwar rally in downtown Chicago, "I am not opposed to all wars. I'm opposed to dumb wars."
When Dean got off the line, DuMont asked Obama what he thought of the Vermont governor. "I like Dean a lot," Obama replied. "One of the things that is striking about where Democrats are right now is there is an enormous hunger for plain-speaking Democrats. His major advantage as a governor is that he is not subject tosome of the equivocation that the senators who are in the presidential race seem to be having problems with. He takes a clear stand, he speaks his mind, and I think that resonates very well with Democratic primary voters. Obviously, that also means he's alienating some potential general election voters, but in the primary that's a real strength."
Yet just as the Dean campaign was supposed to fully come together, it was in the process of falling apart. For all its innovation, the campaign failed to master some of the most elementary basics of campaigning. For starters, the celebrity campaign manager, Joe Trippi, was not a manager, nor was he totally in charge of the campaign. "When I hired him, I said, 'Joe, you're not a manager, but we need your help, and in September we'll make another change,'" Dean said. "Of course in September we were in first place, so we couldn't exactly make the change." Trippi never had control of the campaign's checkbook, nor would it have been a good thing if he did. As the campaign progressed, Dean and Trippi rarely spoke. "He was a terrible manager and emotionally strung out all the time," Dean said. The Vermont faction of the campaign, loyal to Dean during his years as governor, severely mistrusted Trippi, and vice versa. Trippi and O'Connor shared an office in Burlington separated in the middle by a huge piece of duct tape on the floor. Each side operated in separate worlds.
Trippi liked to say that he ran "the old campaign" during the day, talking to elected officials and political operatives, and "the Internet campaign" from 10:00 p.m. until 3:00 a.m., chatting and conversing with techies and bloggers until the wee hours. For nine months he operated on a few hours of sleep, adding an even harder edge to his already irascible personality. He threw phones, knocked over desks, and screamed at overworked staffers. "Petty jealousies and staff rivalries, when combined with a full dose of Trippi, led to a very dysfunctional organization," pollster Paul Maslin wrote in a campaignpostmortem in The Atlantic Monthly. "It may have seemed like Mardi Gras but deep down we were squabbling the whole time."
Compounding the problem, every week, it seemed, the candidate himself made a statement that got him into trouble with the media or rival campaigns. The same qualities that made Dean a compelling insurgent, his tenacity and tendency to openly speak his mind, turned him into a lousy front-runner. Many of these statements, such as his contention in December that "the capture of Saddam [Hussein] has not made America safer," may have been prophetic but sent the campaign spinning into damage control at a time when it should have been consolidating support. "We desperately needed an 'adult,'" Maslin wrote. In a sense, Dean knew this better than anyone. "I think the largest flaw in my campaign by far," he said after it was all over, "was both the lack of discipline in the candidate and the campaign."
The most glaring problems occurred in the only state that initially mattered. In many ways, the campaign in Iowa was the inversion of New Hampshire—bereft of strong local leadership, and missing a coherent strategy and organizational structure. Before the top brass knew there was a problem, Dean's young organizers in Iowa felt their supporters slipping away.
Buffy Wicks, an organizer in Des Moines, was one of them. Tall, blond, competitive, and built like a brick, Wicks grew up outside of Sacramento and spent five hours a day in the pool as a girl training to be an Olympic swimmer. After college, she organized antiwar rallies prior to the invasion of Iraq in San Francisco. "I was really frustrated by the direction of the Democratic Party and felt like it didn't represent me," she said. Like every young progressive organizer, she struggled with the question of "do you change the system from within or from outside?" The night the war began, she got a call from her best friend and roommate. He'd tested positive for HIV/AIDS, he told her, and didn't have health insurance. She wondered what kind of country would invade another nation, unprovoked, but refuse to provide health care for its own people. Thatsame week, on the news, she heard Dean speak at the California Democratic Party's state convention, where he repeated his infamous "What I Want to Know" speech from the DNC. "I was so moved by his ability to pierce into the heart and soul of the Democratic Party at the time," Wicks recalled. Within a few weeks, she got into her car and drove to Iowa.
She took six counties in and around Des Moines and quickly became one of the campaign's best organizers—tenacious, persistent, and quick on her feet. She realized that the seventy-year-old farmers she met had the same concerns about Iraq that she did. She also grasped, soon enough, that Dean's organization in the state wasn't all it was billed to be. "When you're riding a wave of momentum, you think everything's fine," she said, "but people in the field feel it first." In late November, Wicks picked up The New York Times and read an article about the organizing successes of the Dean campaign in New Hampshire. "That's what we need here," she thought. A group of Iowa organizers held an intervention and voted to adopt the house meeting plan. Wicks called Bird, who relayed her concerns to Hicks. Soon enough, Ganz's partner, Paul Milne, and two organizers from New Hampshire were dispatched to Iowa.
Unfortunately, it took months to build and refine the house meetings in New Hampshire, and the organization couldn't be transported overnight. Nor did the top brass in Iowa and Vermont ever really commit to the program. In a few places, such as Wicks's sections of urban Des Moines, the house meetings solidified the campaign's support, but by the time the model was imported to Iowa—in early December—in most places there was no enthusiasm to try something new and it was already too late. "If it had been the statewide mandate and they'd have started as early as they did in New Hampshire," Milne argued, "Dean would've had Iowa sewn up."
Instead, the campaign shifted to plan C.
Tim Connolly arrived in Des Moines the third week of October. A former Army Ranger in Desert Storm, the fifty-year-old Connolly served in the Clinton administration as the principal deputy forspecial operations at the Pentagon, a portfolio spanning everything from the Green Berets in Somalia to humanitarian relief in Chechnya to the drug war in Colombia. He's the guy you call when there's a disaster brewing. Connolly loved covert operations and guerrilla political campaigns, so naturally he gravitated to Dean. Commanding the ground troops in Iowa, as the campaign's new field director, would in many ways be his most daunting mission yet. Though Dean had become the consensus front-runner in Iowa by the fall, "when I came in, the campaign had a fairly small operation with a fairly small footprint," Connolly said. "It had a lot of talented people," such as Wicks, but "there wasn't a vision of how to leverage the talents of people on the ground." A lot of innovative young staffers were "woefully underutilized," he found, "leaving 90 percent of their talents on the table." Connolly took over a windowless second-floor bunker across the street from the campaign's headquarters in downtown Des Moines. His main job was to figure out how to integrate the thousands of volunteers who were planning to stream into Iowa that winter for the caucus and were dead set on coming whether the campaign wanted them there or not.
That's where his Special Forces training came in especially handy. Connolly set up dozens of winterized camps known as fire bases, recruited teams of ground captains and local responders, and distributed hundreds of cell phones. Volunteers would be given orange wool caps for safety and identification purposes. All the logistics would be managed over the Internet; Connolly controlled the entire operation without ever having to speak to a single volunteer. He picked a storm metaphor to describe the operation. First came the Brewing Storm, beginning the day after Christmas, followed by the Emerging Storm (January 2-4), the Gathering Storm (January 9-11), and, finally, the Perfect Storm in the days before the caucus. The goal was to assemble a massive, all-volunteer strike force of "storm troopers" that would blanket the state and overwhelm the opposition.
The plan sounds like a bad imitation of Star Wars in retrospect,but the logic at the time seemed sane enough. If each Stormer brought ten voters to the caucus, the campaign would have the thirty-five thousand supporters it needed to prevail. "We were going to just flood the state," said Maslin, "and make up for whatever leadership difficulties we had with sheer numbers."
Yet Connolly was mainly a logistician, not a political strategist. The head of the Dean campaign in Iowa, Jeani Murray, a former executive director of the Iowa Democratic Party, turned out to be no match for Michael Whouley, the legendary über-strategist who parachuted into Iowa in November and rescued the Kerry campaign. A balding, rail-thin Bostonian who swore like a drunken sailor, never talked to the media, and somehow transformed political campaigns without ever being seen, Whouley was like a ghost. Every political operative had a story about him. Connolly liked to tell the one about how, while working for Gore in New Hampshire in 2000, Whouley allegedly created strategically placed traffic jams on Election Day to prevent Bradley voters from getting to the polls.
In Iowa, Kerry ran a traditional by-the-book campaign, relying on neighborhood leaders known as precinct captains in the business. Iowans talked to Iowans in the Kerry campaign, a far cry from the out-of-state Deaniacs who flooded the state. As the Dean campaign came unglued, Whouley maintained ironclad discipline among Kerry's loyalists. Whouley knew everything there was to know about Kerry's campaign in the state. Dean's campaign was just the opposite.
"What happened in Iowa is the same thing that happened in Iraq," Connolly said. "At its very elemental level, the entire operational plan was predicated on bad intel."
Quite simply, the Dean campaign had far fewer supporters than it thought it did. As the primary got closer and the combined attacks from the other candidates and negative media coverage of Dean sharply increased, that problem only got worse. (Roughly two weeks before the vote, a tape surfaced showing Dean on Canadian television in 2000 calling the Iowa caucus "dominated by specialinterests." Following its release, Dean dropped ten points in the campaign's internal polling.) Dean desperately needed a Whouley. Trippi, a veteran of four presidential campaigns in Iowa, was the closest he had. Around Thanksgiving, Dean asked Trippi to decamp to Iowa full-time. He refused. "He was afraid there would be a palace coup" back in Burlington, Dean recalled. Trippi said he conveyed his worries about Iowa to the candidate in early October, but Dean had no recollection of such a conversation. "If he knew it," Dean said, "he should have gone out there and fixed it."
Trippi worried that if he went to Iowa, the national campaign back in Burlington would fall apart. Campaign aides nicknamed him Eeyore—after the donkey in Winnie-the-Pooh—because he always fretted that the sky was falling. In late November, Trippi made another trip to Des Moines, bringing along a half dozen aging political consultants that Connolly dubbed "the white hats." He instructed Connolly to hire a staggering 175 new organizers over the next two months to keep parity with Kerry. Suddenly computer programmers in Burlington were dispatched to the cornfields of Iowa to manage the complicated caucus. Then the Stormers showed up. "Here's the irony of the Storm," says Connolly. "It was by far the largest operation in the entire Dean campaign, both in terms of numbers and complexity, and nobody cared about it. Trippi did not feel compelled to micromanage it." The Stormers, Dean's advisers believed, didn't wreck the campaign to anywhere near the extent the media portrayed, but there was no denying that the biggest asset Dean had—his band of committed supporters, many becoming engaged with electoral politics for the first time—turned into a thoroughly mocked PR circus and an ineffective organizing weapon. Instead of expanding Dean's support in Iowa, they repelled caucus voters, who resented being told how to vote by a bunch of kids from out of state wearing bright orange hats. Said one gleeful Kerry volunteer: "I kept telling everybody, in The Perfect Storm, everybody dies at the end."
So many different factors, exhaustively chronicled in the weeksthat followed, contributed to Dean's dramatic collapse. No one explanation is sufficient to explain why he tanked in Iowa; Dean was done in by a combination of self-inflicted gaffes and mistakes, sub-par organizing, heightened media scrutiny, attacks from the other candidates (particularly concerning his temperament and electability), the rabidity of his supporters, and the belated efforts by Kerry and Edwards to co-opt his message of change. By January 19, many caucus-goers doubted whether Dean could really defeat President Bush and possessed the qualities necessary to be an effective candidate and president. Iowans, ultimately, concluded that he was too risky a pick for such an important election and turned to the two safest alternatives, the war hero and the charismatic Southerner.
The outrage and despair that Dean had tapped into, which Axelrod and Obama identified as a short-term strength but potential long-term weakness, catapulted Dean a long way, but could take him only so far. During the campaign, Bill Clinton gave Dean at least one piece of valuable advice. The two spoke roughly every month, even when it appeared that Clinton preferred Wes Clark. "Now that you're the front-runner," Clinton told Dean in the weeks before the Iowa caucus, "if you want people to vote for you, you have to act like a president." Dean knew Clinton was right, but he couldn't leave the insurgency behind. It was as if his supporters and opponents saw only one side of Dean, the fiery, antiwar, throw-caution-to-the-wind crusader, and blocked out the rest of his record and biography. Even when he knew he needed to modulate his image, reminding people that he could actually win and govern, the candidate got sucked into the excitement just like everyone else.
"I was intoxicated at the same time," Dean admitted. "If you go before adoring crowds, you pump your fist in the air, and they go absolutely crazy, there's a certain amount of addiction that goes with that. I realized it was happening to me in Iowa, and it was a terrible feeling because it was too late to do anything about it. I was realizing what was happening in Iowa in the last two weeks. I was still drawing huge crowds everywhere I went, but it was the same people.When we got on the bus and drove to the next stop, they got in their cars and went on to the next stop. So it became almost like the Grateful Dead. It was the same people over and over again, and that's not how you win races." His opening acts, in the last week, included liberal comedian Janeane Garofalo and aging rocker Joan Jett. Not exactly the types of people you want closing the deal in a place like Iowa.
Still, polls in the last weeks showed him ahead—or at least tied—and the campaign expected to prevail. In the weeks before the caucus, Trippi spent millions of dollars on ads and staff in Iowa, New Hampshire, and the half-dozen states that soon followed. The campaign went from a patient fighter preparing for a long bout to a hungry would-be champion intent on delivering a swift knockout blow. Ali turned into Foreman. The strategy backfired completely when Dean came in a distant third in Iowa. His campaign bungled the expectations game and blew $41 million. In perhaps the biggest irony of all, the fiscally conservative governor had looted the cookie jar. "We were in good shape in every state but Iowa," Dean later admitted, "which was the one state I didn't understand." But Iowa came first, a harsh reality Hillary Clinton would learn four years later. "It's a terrific exercise in organization," Dean said of the caucus. "We flunked it totally."
Though Buffy Wicks and many of her counterparts would go on to bigger and better things, the scars from the first war zone of the 2004 election never disappeared. "I left my heart in Iowa," she said.
The results were as follows: John Kerry, 38 percent; John Edwards, 32 percent; Howard Dean, 18 percent. "Dean! Dean! Dean! Dean!" a raucous crowd of eight hundred supporters chanted at Dean's "victory" party in Des Moines, trying mightily to mask the utter disappointment of the news.
Kate O'Connor described the night's result as "the shocker of the century." The campaign may have been slipping in the polls, but fewpredicted such a poor finish. "No one thought we were going to lose," she said. "So there was never a discussion of 'what do we say if we don't win?'" Ten minutes before he was due to speak, Dean sat on his campaign bus with his shell-shocked top aides. The atmosphere was akin to a funeral. Steve McMahon told Dean to remember Bobby Kennedy's famous speech in the black ghetto of Indianapolis following Martin Luther King's death in 1968, when Kennedy's raw yet eloquent words soothed a wounded and angry crowd.
Trippi had just surveyed the manic scene inside the Val Air Ballroom. He and Dean, barely on speaking terms by that point, conferred for a few minutes on the bus. "You've got three thousand people in there," Trippi reported, unintentionally overstating the number. "This is a big blow for them. You've got to go out there and cheer them up." He handed Dean an orange hat, which the candidate stuffed in his back pocket.
Inside the retro ballroom in West Des Moines, furnished with a massive disco ball, the crowd blanketed the place with American flags and chanted, "Let's take our country back!"—the campaign's motto and emblem on the giant black banner overhead. Dean came out defiant, took off his black suit jacket, and rolled up the sleeves of his blue shirt in trademark fashion. He wasn't going to let a distant-third-place finish ruin his planned celebration. He grabbed the orange hat from his back pocket, held it high above his head, and emphatically chucked it into the frenzied mob below, eliciting wild cheers. Dean smiled broadly and exchanged a boyish high five with Iowa senator Tom Harkin, his top supporter in the state. The candidate looked ready to rumble—short, squat neck bulging out of its tight collar, mic in his left hand, jabbing intently with his right. There was no script or formal speech in sight.
"I was about to say, you know, I'm sure there are some disappointed people here," Dean said at the outset. The crowd booed. "You know something, if you had told us one year ago that we were going to come in third in Iowa, we would have given anything for that." He was in a fighting mood. There would be no concessionspeech or acknowledgment of defeat. "Not only are we going to New Hampshire," he informed the crowd, "we're going to South Carolina and Oklahoma and Arizona and North Dakota and New Mexico. And we're going to California and Texas and New York ... And we're going to South Dakota and Oregon and Washington and Michigan, and then we're going to Washington, D.C., to take back the White House!" As he yelled out the upcoming primary states, Dean's face turned redder and redder and his voice plunged deeper and deeper, taking on the wild inflection of a WWF announcer. Then, voice cracking, right arm swinging forward, he let out a high-pitched "Yeah!" for exclamation that sounded, at least to a TV audience, more like an unhinged "Yeeeeeeeearrrrrrhhhhh!" The crowd went crazy. Dean let out a big chuckle. "We will not give up!" he exclaimed, caught helplessly in the sheer bravado of the moment. "We will not give up in New Hampshire! We will not give up in South Carolina! We will not give up in Arizona! Or New Mexico! Oklahoma! North Dakota! Delaware! Pennsylvania! Ohio! Michigan! We will not quit now or ever! We want our country back for ordinary Americans!" Voices in the crowd called out the names of those states Dean had somehow forgotten to mention. "And we're going to win in Massachusetts!" Dean responded excitedly. "And North Carolina! And Missouri! And Arkansas! And Connecticut! And New York! And Ohio!" he repeated mistakenly. It was almost a shame he never got to all fifty.
Three of the longest minutes in political history elapsed before Dean turned to the "polite" part of his remarks, calmly thanking his campaign staff and volunteers. He was supposed to talk about how his supporters had changed politics forever, even in defeat, but that message never broke through. Those in the room didn't know it yet, but the millions of people who watched on TV—some of them seeing Dean for the first time—viewed the speech as a requiem for a terrifying campaign. Cable news instantly replayed "the scream" on an endless loop, amplifying Dean's yelp for maximum effect (you could barely hear him inside the earsplitting room), and the clipbecame an early Internet video sensation. Dean's political obituary was penned virtually overnight.
In the blackness of the next morning, Dean and staff flew to New Hampshire, arriving at 3:30 a.m. for a rally at an airport hangar in Portsmouth. Then he went to sleep. He woke up the next morning to footage of the scream, which he saw for the first time on his campaign bus. He was flabbergasted—but not entirely surprised—by the media's portrayal of him as an unhinged lunatic. "It is what it is," he told O'Connor. "What are we supposed to do about it now?" No amount of damage control could push it off TV. Cable news eviscerated him; then the late-night comedians dumped Dean's remains all over the floor.
Leno: "Cows in Iowa are afraid of getting mad Dean disease."
Letterman: "Here's a little tip, Howard—cut back on the Red Bull."
Conan: "Afterwards Dean said, 'Iowa is behind me. Now I'm looking forward to going to New Hampshire and screaming at voters there.'"
Game. Set. Match. "In forty years of observing presidential contests," wrote Bill Greider in The Nation, "I cannot remember another major candidate brutalized so intensely by the media."
Before Iowa, Dean comfortably led Kerry and Clark in New Hampshire. Afterward, he plummeted to third place in the polls. Bird and his organizers fought and clawed to get the candidate back to a respectable showing. Whouley later admitted that he feared the Dean campaign might pull off a miraculous comeback. Alas, it was not to be. Dean took 26 percent of the vote, losing to Kerry by thirteen. If it hadn't been for the endless loop of the scream, Bird argued, Dean would've won the state despite his lopsided defeat in Iowa and had a shot in the ensuing contests. The campaign held its core supporters—the undecideds just broke the other way. If New Hampshire had come first, everything might've been different.
The oldest story in presidential politics had once again played itself out. The insurgent came out of nowhere, captivated everyone for a while, and then flamed out, soon to disappear into oblivion. Dean was just another Hart or Bradley or Bruce Babbitt. Like clockwork, the old politics had conquered the new. Iowa and New Hampshire represented yet another "triumph" for "the original Comeback Kid, Bill Clinton," the DLC argued, and a vindication for "the Blair Democrats who supported the war in Iraq." The brief reign of the Dean Democrats had come to a crashing end.
Such widespread establishment chatter proved to be a rather self-serving and myopic bit of hackneyed political analysis. Many of Dean's sharpest critics, who as it happened would end up on the losing end of the following presidential election, saw only the campaign's dysfunction and demise rather than its unrealized potential.
HERDING DONKEYS. Copyright © 2010 by Ari Berman. Afterword copyright © 2012 by Ari Berman. All rights reserved. For information, address Picador, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.
1 Insurgent vs. Establishment 11
2 Storming the Castle 55
3 Midterms 78
4 Clintonism vs. Change 107
5 Nationalize this 151
6 Blowback 199
Epilogue: The Next Frontier 225
Posted October 5, 2010
I saw a great review in last Wednesday's Wall St Journal and ordered a copy of Herding Donkeys. I could not put the book down all weekend. It brought back memories of the positive feelings of hope and change which was the basis of the grass roots support for Obama. The story of Governor Dean and his timeless work in his "50 state strategy" shows the persistence and dedication of the progressive all-inclusive message of Obama. Berman explains why Obama has had a difficult time with the mandate with which he was elected and reminds us that Obama's "inner circle" does not reflect the voters' message. Herding Donkeys is a very engaging report of how thousands of citizens worked tirelessly to support Obama and transformed the purple states to vote blue. Well written with many colorful characters; book reads like a novel. Very enjoyable.
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Posted May 5, 2012
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