Howard Dean eyes youthful grassroots for Democratic Party resurgence

Former candidate sees younger Democrats beating ‘rogue’ Trump and Republicans

On a visit to Dublin, former Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean gives his take on Donald Trump, the 2016 presidential race and the 'Dean scream'.


The former US Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean believes the party’s chances of winning back the White House in 2020 rest on appealing to young Americans and a bottom-up grassroots campaign.

The one-time Vermont governor, whose 2004 presidential bid revolutionised campaigning by using the internet to drive mass participation, sees a return to winning ways through the rash of new youthful political activist groups.

“If you want young people to vote, you got to give them somebody to be excited about and I think that’s going to be somebody who looks like them,” Dean said on a visit to Dublin for a conference last week.

The medical doctor-turned-politician is hoping for a Democratic presidential candidate “under 50, 55 at a pinch,” he says. He has a close eye on four possible runners: Eric Garcetti (47), the mayor of Los Angeles; New York senator Kirsten Gillibrand (51); California senator Kamala Harris (53) and Connecticut senator Chris Murphy (44).

Now an outspoken media pundit who regularly lambasts Donald Trump, Dean paints the US president as a racist, a provocateur and a narcissist obsessed with his public profile.

“The state of American politics is pretty disastrous,” he told The Irish Times, speaking the morning after the US government shut down for the second time under Trump.


“We have a guy who is mostly interested in disruption and getting his name in the paper than doing anything else.”

Looking ahead to the US congressional midterm elections in November, Dean is optimistic that the Democrats can win back the House of Representatives and, contrary to a prevailing view, the Senate because of the public anger over the chaos in the White House and “Trump’s personal example”.

Dean does not see an end to dysfunctional politics in the poisonous atmosphere on Capitol Hill; he believes Republicans have “no interest in governing”, even if Trump is open to doing deals.

“Trump doesn’t know anything or care anything about issues,” he said. “He just knows what pushes people’s emotional buttons so I do think he will actually compromise. Republicans have no interest in compromise and they actually have no interest in democracy. They are mostly just interested in ruling.”

Dean is sanguine about US institutions being strong enough to survive what he calls “a rogue president and a rogue party” and hopeful that Democrats can mobilise better this year and in 2020.

‘Allowed to atrophy’

As chairman of the Democratic National Committee from 2005 to 2009, the Vermonter scored big electoral wins, winning back the House, Senate and the White House. The internet-based fundraising and grassroots campaigning Dean pioneered in 2004 was taken further by Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 and by Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders in 2016.

Under Obama, he says, the party disintegrated, becoming a “re-elect vehicle for the president” and too institutionalised, alienating the youth. Many reforms he introduced were “allowed to atrophy” and now the party is in a “very difficult transition for people my age who can’t let go”, he says.

Dean sees Trump’s successful use of social media in the 2016 campaign – with Russian help – as “the mirror image, the evil image” of what his campaign achieved because Trump appealed to the “worst in people”.

Back in 2004, a shortage of money led Dean to delegate control of his campaign to the twentysomethings who flocked to him – “igniting the first global generation for the first time in the US”, as he says – and “letting them do whatever they wanted”. It helped propel him to be the early Democratic frontrunner.

The ‘Dean Scream’

In Dean’s mind, the lack of structure ultimately led to the campaign’s demise and not his famous “Dean Scream” speech. Delivered after his third-place finish in the Iowa caucuses, the first presidential qualifying round, the speech was roundly ridiculed and used by the media to question his presidential credentials.

“I did not lose because of the ‘I Have a Scream’ speech. I lost because it was a disorganised campaign,” he said. “It was always run on chewing gum and baling wire.”

Looking back, he says the media built him up and wanted to take him down. He is stoic about his brush with the savagery of a presidential race, seeing politics as “a substitute for war”. The brutal 2016 election was another example of that.

“We just basically had the French Revolution in the United States and nobody went to the guillotine,” he said.

“I think that is an improvement. We are making progress as a species.”

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