Four years and three months ago, Howard Dean was the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination for President of the United States. Markos Moulitsas Zúniga, proprietor of the infant weblog "Daily Kos" was one of Dean's biggest online cheerleaders. Though their efforts failed back in 2004—Dean simply wasn't up to the task of sustaining a top-tier candidacy—both survived the debacle quite nicely. Today, Moulitsas ("Kos") holds down a position as one of the most influential voices in the left blogosphere, and his blessing (as well as his fundraising prowess) is routinely sought by Democrats running for various offices from coast to coast. Howard Dean, once the quintessential insurgent, now chairs the Democratic National Committee.
Each came into the 2008 with a big idea. Kos argued, as he did during the Dean campaign, that rank and file Democrats must break the monopoly on power held by the party's sclerotic Beltway insiders, timid centrists, and money-grubbing consultants. In the subtitle of his coauthored book, Crashing the Gate, Moulitsas alliteratively argues for "the rise of people-powered politics".
Dean, suddenly finding himself the ultimate insider, defied the conventional wisdom of the pundit class by embarking on what he called a 50-state strategy. It was critical, he insisted, to rebuild the Democratic Party's infrastructure in states that had been all but abandoned to the GOP over the past quarter century. To the dismay of those who thought he was flushing vital millions down the commode, Dean sent cash and party troops to places like Mississippi and Wyoming, states whose hostility to the national Democratic Party had previously been unquestioned.
These efforts achieved some measure of fruition in 2006, as the Democrats regained majorities in both the Senate and the House of Representatives for the first time in a dozen years. Moulitsas and his "netroots" supporters backed insurgent Senate primary candidacies in Montana and Virginia, and saw their men achieve November victory over the Republicans. Dean's willingness to build up his party in hostile territory was rewarded not only with the two Senate wins, but also a handful of House seats in such unlikely venues as Kansas and Indiana.
It remains unclear, of course, just how much credit Dean and the Kossacks deserve for the party's midterm turnaround. It is quite possible that the establishment Democratic candidate could also have won the Montana seat (the state's other senator, after all, is already a Democrat), and Virginia's Jim Webb owed his triumph largely to incumbent Senator George Allen's campaign trail meltdown, in which he referred to a dark-skinned young opponent as "Macaca". Further, the Democrats' re-capture of the House had much less to do with breakthroughs in the pro-GOP heartland than it did with a realignment in the already competitive and relatively liberal states of the northeast and midwest.
Fortunately, both theories have been provided with a new test case in 2008, this time at the presidential level. Barack Obama, an anti-war liberal, is not only taking on one of the icons of the Democratic Party establishment, Hillary Clinton, he is doing so on the basis of grass-roots organizing and small-scale fundraising, much of it coming from the internet. Further, part of his claim on the party's attention is his supposed ability to mobilize young people and African Americans, perhaps making the Democrats competitive in states that they have not seriously contested, at least on the presidential level, since 1976. Obama thus embodies the fifty-state strategy.
Moulitsas has become an unabashed Obama supporter, and his blog now serves as a virtual branch office of the Illinois senator's campaign. Dean, as DNC chair, professes neutrality in the race, but given his own insurgent history, his liberal politics, and his uneasy relationship with the Clintons, it is hard to imagine that he has not spent the past few months privately rooting for an Obama victory. The man certainly has some scores to settle, as well as a perch from which to settle them, should he so choose.
All of this leads, of course, to Florida and Michigan. Flexing his muscles as party boss, Dean insisted that any state that defied his ban on holding primaries before February 5 (other than the chosen four—Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina) would not have its delegates seated at the Democratic convention in August. Florida and Michigan pushed ahead with their primary elections anyway and Dean held his ground. Even when the two states crawled back to the DNC asking for either forgiveness or a do-over, Dean refused to front the money for a revote.
This is, one might have thought, the sort of thing that would drive the folks at Daily Kos into outright rebellion. One set of party officials battles another, and the result is the effective disenfranchisement of Democratic voters in two of the most important swing states on the electoral map. Surely, people-power (whatever the heck that is) would demand that the blameless denizens of Miami and Muskegon should have their voices heard, whatever the cost. A party that can send real money to Nebraska and Utah can surely spare a couple of bucks so that the voters of actual competitive states can be represented.
Ah, but this is politics, and the DNC chair is now the darling of the netroots (or at least their leaders) and Obama is their candidate. The Kossacks have spent the past two months insisting that "rules is rules" and that Florida and Michigan have earned their punishment, regardless of the fact that ordinary Floridians and Michiganders had little say in the decision. Kos and the gang insist that their newfound devotion to the iron rule of the DNC has nothing to do with the fact that shutting out these two states will virtually assure that Barack Obama receives the Democratic nomination. What a difference four years makes.
As for Dean, it would be difficult to throw darts at a map and hit two states more critical to Democratic prospects of victory in November. Voters tend not to look kindly at a party that has deprived them of their voice in the electoral process. Should these states fall narrowly to John McCain in November, Howard Dean's legacy will be the squandering of the party's most important opportunity to capture the White House since at least 1932. If nothing else, perhaps that will make the world forget his infamous Iowa scream.
Clearly, Michigan and Florida constitute very different cases. Obama's name did not appear on the Michigan ballot, making it difficult to consider the Wolverine State's results valid. In Florida, on the other hand, both local campaigns were active (though neither candidate visited the state) and over 1.5 million voters went to the polls. Senator Clinton's victory there was at least as legitimate as Obama's various triumphs in low-turnout caucus states.
So this is what it comes down to: Will the DNC and its blogging cheerleaders sit idly by while the citizens of two critical swing states are denied the right to participate in the selection of the Democratic presidential nominee? Or are both Dean and the netroots so invested in an Obama victory that they are willing to achieve it through strong-arm tactics better suited to Karl Rove. The credibility of the advocates of "people-powered politics" is very much on the line.
So is that of Howard Dean and his 50—now 48—state strategy.