The Outsiders

by Ryan Lizza | February 14, 2005

If you've bothered to pay any attention to the low-wattage drama of the race for chairman of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), you probably know that Howard Dean is on the verge of winning it. But, during a three-month process in which many candidates and would-be candidates have stumbled briefly into the fray, nothing is more illustrative of how Democratic politics have changed than the fate of Leo Hindery.

You've probably never heard of Hindery, but he is one of the party establishment's longtime moneymen. In the old soft-money days, the cable TV baron could be counted on to write six-figure checks to the DNC. During the last presidential race, when his friend Dick Gephardt was getting torn to shreds by Dean, Hindery dropped $100,000 on TV ads tying the Vermont governor to Osama bin Laden. Hindery jumped into the DNC race in early December, noisily proclaiming the backing of Gephardt and Tom Daschle. He soon steered his private jet toward Orlando, where Democrats were meeting to kick off the chairmanship race. But Hindery never even made it inside the drab hotel ballroom where DNC members grilled Dean and the other candidates.

A guerrilla squad of Democratic bloggers had already gone to work on him, noting that he is an ex-Republican and that, even as a Democrat, he had given money to the GOP. Meanwhile, the usually irrelevant 447 members of the DNC--known simply as "the 447"--sensed a rare opportunity to take control of the selection process as never before. The members are generally local party operatives and activists elected or appointed to the DNC. Technically, they are the Democratic Party. But institutionally, they are hostile to Beltway Democrats, who they believe ignore them. And recently, they've been emboldened by the renaissance of grassroots politics. In previous years they swallowed hard and rubber-stamped a Terry McAuliffe or a Ron Brown, but the idea that a former Republican financier had been sent down to Florida by two defeated Democrats who had spent their last years in Washington watching the GOP take over the town did not sit well with the 447.

Hindery's aides, after scouting the situation, gently explained to him that he didn't have a chance. He turned his jet around and flew away. As Hindery's spokeswoman, Democratic consultant Jennifer Bluestein, said with more than a touch of understatement, "He recognized his best role is to remain a party fund-raiser." That night, in Hindery's abandoned hotel suite, a gaggle of Democratic operatives raided his mini-bar and mockingly toasted the death of his absurd candidacy: "To Leo!"

In hindsight, the boozy requiem wasn't just for Hindery, but for an era. The DNC chair race has exposed deep fissures within the Democratic Party. Some of these are ideological, but the real story of the race is the diffusion of power away from Washington and to new people and entities that have rushed to fill the power vacuum at the top of the party. When the Democrats control the White House, the president can simply pick the chair of the party. But, even when out of power, Democratic pooh-bahs traditionally rally around a consensus figure and present him to the DNC members as a fait accompli. An open process with all the trappings of a modern political campaign--including a seven-candidate field, fund-raising, regional debates, and smear campaigns in the press--is unprecedented in the party's history. To many Washington Democrats watching the circus-like contest from afar, it has been an embarrassment. "I think it's pathetic," says James Carville. "It's so indicative of the Democratic Party. Now we're just playing into every stereotype: We're weak, disorganized, flopping around.... Somebody should have fixed this damn thing in November. I wish someone would have taken charge and three or four people would have gotten together in a smoke-filled room.... They're not running for president! They are running for party chair. This is supposed to be a rigged deal. You think the Republicans would do it this way?"

But every attempt to rig the race failed, revealing that the levers of power in the Democratic Party have shifted out of Washington's hands. From the congressional leadership to the governors to the Clintons, top Democrats were all terrified of a Dean victory. They believe he will turn what is essentially a low-key fund-raising and management position into a lightning rod for GOP attacks, eclipsing other voices and emphasizing exactly the elements of the party that weeks of postelection soul-searching had determined the Democrats needed to play down (e.g., its liberal stance on cultural issues and its weakness on national security). And yet none of them could stop him.

There was a Keystone Kops feel to how inept the Democratic leadership proved in its attempts to find an alternative to the dreaded Dean. Gephardt and Daschle flamed out with Hindery. Bill Clinton tried to recruit Wesley Clark, but the general politely declined, citing his own presidential ambitions for 2008. John Kerry, in his first postelection attempt to influence his party, flitted from candidate to candidate--Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack one day, ex-New Hampshire Governor Jeanne Shaheen the next--but neither entered the race. A former Michigan governor named Jim Blanchard was briefly resurrected from obscurity and pushed into the race by a trio of Democratic governors, but he was a dud.

One of the most inept attempts to stop Dean was engineered by Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic House leader. According to numerous Democrats, Pelosi not only feared Dean, but she feared the potential anti-Dean of the race, Martin Frost, an ex-representative who was redistricted out of his Texas seat by Tom DeLay's political machine. Frost had challenged Pelosi for leader two years ago, and they have had a poisonous relationship ever since. She tapped former Indiana Representative Tim Roemer as her preferred candidate and persuaded Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid to back the decision. It proved to be a pivotal moment, revealing once again how the rules had changed.

When Roemer jumped in, the race had already congealed into Dean versus a field of unknowns. Now Roemer threatened to stamp out Dean's other competitors. But he was unprepared for what would happen next. The entire field of candidates, in concert with the insular liberal blogosphere, rose up and destroyed Roemer.

The hit was silent and deadly. One day I received by messenger a dirty and smudged envelope with no return address. Inside were five pages of anti-Roemer opposition research about his positions on everything from Israel and abortion to labor and Social Security. The same information was fed to numerous blogs, which quickly declared Roemer anathema. "Unless Roemer publicly, loudly, and completely repudiates his recent [pro-privatization] position on Social Security, he is utterly unacceptable as DNC chair," said a post on the pro-Dean site MyDD.com, which served as a key clearinghouse of information about the race. (Roemer did repudiate that position, but it wasn't enough.) By the time Roemer showed up on "This Week" for a Sunday morning announcement of his candidacy, which, in the old days, might have helped solidify him as the establishment choice, he was badly damaged. He spent most of his interview with George Stephanopoulos defensively responding to bloggers he had clearly never heard of, like MyDD and The Washington Monthly's Kevin Drum. "The bloggers, the Internet is a very, very useful tool for us to communicate with voters, ideas. I'm very excited about it, but it can also misinterpret a vote," he complained.

Roemer never recovered. In St. Louis days later, at one of five candidate forums held around the country for DNC members to interview the aspiring chairs, Roemer rose and, glaring at Dean and candidate Simon Rosenberg, lashed out at the "secret e-mails" that were circulating about him. He angrily defended his pro-life record and testily challenged the DNC members to show some tolerance on the issue. It was a brave speech, but it was also the end of his candidacy. Applause was scattered and perfunctory. In New York the next week, he told DNC members, "We shouldn't let a special interest group decide our view on choice." This time, the audience hissed.

The Roemer episode not only exposed the power of the blogs and the weakness of the Hill leadership, it also fatally wounded Frost. He had spent the heart of the short campaign tied up making the case against Roemer instead of attacking Dean. For instance, in a letter sent out to the 447, Frost wrote, "Our party cannot be adequately led by someone whose primary qualification to serve as Chair is his opposition to core Democratic beliefs." By the time Frost turned his attention to Dean, it was much too late. "Roemer," says a top Democratic strategist speaking of the whole affair, "was a debacle."

 

The bloggers were not the only group to exert unusual, and utterly new, influence on the chairmanship race this year. A heretofore obscure entity, the Association of State Democratic Chairs (ASDC), a subgroup of the 447, moved aggressively to take the place of the bumbling Hill leadership and Democratic governors who found themselves unable to influence the process. The Democratic chairs are led by Mark Brewer, the head of the party in Michigan. He is one of the semi-anonymous cogs in the Democratic machine who has spent decades moving from one perch to another (precinct delegate, vice chair, chair) but rarely gaining respect from the establishment or much influence within the DNC. He realized this was his chance to make himself and the other state chairs major players. Brewer singlehandedly turned the selection process for party leader from a race about the future of the party into a debate about the ASDC's idiosyncratic agenda. "Brewer fancies himself the kingmaker," said a top Democratic strategist halfway through the race.

Brewer forced all the candidates to become experts on the ASDC's complaints. He sent each candidate a five-page list of demands, which was jokingly referred to as "the ransom note." It was essentially a blueprint for transferring power from Washington to the state parties. Currently, the DNC chairman gets to appoint 75 members of the DNC. Brewer wants the states to get 50 of those spots. He wants the ASDC to have office space at the DNC and a say in where the presidential conventions are held. Most controversially, he wants a new Budget and Finance Committee run by the ASDC to audit the DNC's expenditures. In the very last line of his ransom note, he simply demands that the DNC fork over an annual tribute to his group: "DNC to provide $200,000 toward ASDC annual budget."

There is an almost perfect correlation between how much the candidates pandered to the ASDC and how well they did in the race. Wonder why Harold Ickes, Hillary Clinton's chief political adviser, left the contest so early? At the first forum in Orlando, he had the temerity to tell the ASDC that they needed to fix their state parties before they come begging for money from Washington. Most of the other candidates simply promised to shower more cash on them.

The ASDC's newfound power was also evident in the cases of Donnie Fowler and Simon Rosenberg. Aside from Dean, they were the two most interesting candidates. Under the old rules, neither of them would have dared enter the race. Fowler is 37 years old, and Rosenberg is 41, but they both look younger. Fowler has a South Carolina accent and a San Francisco address. He wears a pompadour and hipster eyeglasses. His campaign began out of the sense of frustration he felt as a field organizer for several losing candidates (he was Al Gore's national field director). Fowler's bid was partly fueled by a small cadre of smart, youngish, and ideologically centrist operatives who want to rid the party of Bob Shrum and his cohorts, an idea Fowler expressed with his signature line about wanting to "break the party free from an aristocracy of consultants."

Rosenberg, meanwhile, has created his own niche in the party by turning his organization, the New Democrat Network, into an incubator of ideas and projects to help rebuild the party's institutions to match what Democrats see as a far superior Republican political and communications machine. Rosenberg was brilliant and charismatic in person but a less polished public speaker than Fowler. He had a tendency to press a dozen of his favorite ideas into his presentations while Fowler massaged the ASDC's erogenous zones. While Fowler's father was a past DNC chairman, the kabuki rules and oddball personalities of the DNC, not to mention the ASDC, were somewhat alien to Rosenberg and his staff.

Fowler soon became the darling of Brewer and his inner circle. Fowler's response to the ransom note was a crisp four pages, declaring at the outset, "I agree with every recommendation in principle and will support the implementation of each as DNC chair." It's hard to top that. Rosenberg, on the other hand, sent Brewer nine pages of ideas about what Democrats need to do, only some of which responded to the ASDC's pet concerns. He also flatly rejected their idea, known as the Fowler amendment--that's right, named after Donnie's father--to give the states more power to select DNC members.

From the outside, it seemed the race had come down to Dean and Frost, but Frost never made inroads with the ASDC. Brewer's group only had eyes for Dean and Fowler. Dean ran a steady and methodical campaign that stood in sharp contrast to his presidential bid. He hewed closely to the ASDC demands, supporting the Fowler amendments and promising to deliver $200,000 to each state party, and he used his celebrity to sew up rank-and-file members. "They are starstruck by him," griped a rival campaign. "They are overwhelmed. It's like, `Oh my god! I just got off the phone with Howard Dean!'" He also slowly chipped away at holdouts terrified of his caricature as an ultra-liberal, antiwar elitist. "I am the Howard Dean who knows how to build things. I'm not Joe Trippi's creation," he told members, according to an adviser.

The ASDC-driven process inspired lots of DNC-bashing. And, just days before Brewer was to cap his kingmaker status in the party--summoning all the candidates before his 21-person executive committee for a final grilling before the ASDC made its coveted endorsement--the DNC knee-capped him instead. Party officials leaked to the press that the DNC wanted an audit of Brewer's Michigan party to account for a missing $2.5 million that the DNC had given it during the election. What's more, it turns out that the head of the Kerry-Edwards campaign in the state was none other than Donnie Fowler, a fact that raised eyebrows among the candidates in the race jealous of how much progress Fowler had made with Brewer. Making matters worse, Brewer refused to agree to the audit, an odd position for someone demanding financial accountability from the party. "We're talking about accountability and transparency inside the DNC. That's what's missing," Brewer told me.

Thanks in part to this mini-scandal, Brewer's effort to choose the next chairman collapsed. His executive committee, in a murky process that some of the other candidates complain was "rigged," voted for Fowler. But, when Brewer presented that recommendation to the party's state chairs and vice chairs a day later, they revolted and overwhelmingly rejected it, voting for Dean over Fowler 56 to 21. The vote all but sealed Dean's victory. None of the other candidates received more than five votes, killing their arguments that they could consolidate the anti-Dean forces. Meanwhile, Fowler's victory in the executive committee was dismissed as a fluke; he was faced with questions about the missing money in Michigan; and no senior Democrats came forward to anoint him as the anti-Dean. Dean had outmaneuvered every leader and wannabe leader in the Democratic Party.

 

Dean's apparent victory--aides to Roemer and Fowler insist they'll stay in the race, but the rest of the field had dropped out or had plans to drop out by the time The New Republic went to press--proves that a process he sparked in the primaries hasn't faded. Back then, he splintered the party roughly into a reform wing and an establishment wing. That divide was only temporarily papered over during the general election. In his plan for the DNC, Dean declares that he will "make Democrats the party of reform," and reform happens to be a hot word among Democrats these days. The emboldened DNC members talk about reform when they call for Washington Democrats to cede power and help rebuild their state parties. In the pro-Dean blogosphere, the coolest thing to do is to declare oneself "a reform Democrat." What the Deaniacs mean by that is anyone's guess, but they speak in apocalyptic terms. "We need revolution. We need total upheaval," Joyce Nowak, a 60-year-old MyDD blogger told me at one DNC meeting. Chris Bowers, another MyDD blogger, declared, "I can barely believe it. It looks like we finally won something. Outside becomes inside."

But reform is also the new buzzword in the party's idea factories and among its elite as well. Much of the Democratic Leadership Council's recent advice for the party is to retake the mantle of political reform from Republicans using issues like redistricting, ethics, and electoral reform. Similarly, Carville tells anyone who will listen that Democrats must embrace the label of reform. But they are not talking about party-wide revolution. (Carville, after all, was appalled by the open process of the DNC chair's race.) They are talking about issues Democrats can use to defeat Republicans. Dean's first hurdle as chairman will be to erase the cartoon image of him that is seared into the minds of most Americans. But, beyond that monumental task, Dean will somehow have to mend the insider-outsider cleavage in the Democratic Party, a cleavage that he, perhaps more than anyone else, is responsible for creating--and which finally brought him to power.

Ryan Lizza is a senior editor at The New Republic. This article originally ran in the February 14, 2005, issue of the magazine.

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