Dean Does Dixie 

The New Democratic National Committee chairman brings renewed energy to the party.

NASHVILLE -- It is last Wednesday. Howard Dean has just gotten through talking to a roomful of diehard Tennessee Democrats at an early-morning breakfast fund-raiser, explaining what his strategy, as new Democratic National Committee chairman, is for dealing with the South.

"Show up!" he tells them. "It is disrespectful not to show up." Above all, he and they should take on the "values debate" with the Republicans and address the "faith-based" voter. "We've got to talk to people on our own terms, and we've got to honor them and respect them.

"I do not think the Democratic Party will ever again succeed if we write off any section of the country," the former governor of Vermont says. "We cannot do that, and we will not do that."

The room at the party's downtown headquarters on 8th Street contains a good many activists and a sprinkling of luminaries. There is the state party chairman, Randy Button of Knoxville, of course, and in the crowd are former Congressman Bob Clement of Nashville and his wife Mary, among others. But conspicuously missing are most of the state's other name Democrats. To be fair, this is Wednesday morning, and the state's five Democratic congressmen are still in session in Washington, D.C., while Dean has already met with many of his party's state lawmakers in a session at the Capitol on the previous afternoon.

But neither here nor at any of the other four venues scheduled for Dean on the new chairman's two-day stay-over in Nashville is there a sign of Phil Bredesen, the governor of Tennessee. "Too busy" is what the governor's people said. Bredesen's schedule calls for a 9 a.m. appearance on this morning at a suburban Nashville site to discuss his plans for a new pre-K program.

Dean is not fazed by the absence of the man whom he had extolled the previous night to a packed auditorium at Vanderbilt University as someone "that's done a good job in Tennessee; who's run things properly and in a no-nonsense way." Dean ups the ante this morning, referring to Bredesen as "one of the greatest governors in the United States." He goes so far as to make Bredesen a test case.

"If we can elect a Democratic governor in Tennessee, we can elect a Democratic president of the United States, and of Mississippi, and of Kansas, and of Utah, and all those supposedly red states," Dean says, to applause that gathers with the mention of each state in the series. "There is no such thing as a red state," he insists. "Every state is purple. Some are lighter purple than others. We're going to make this state deep purple and then blue."

By the time Dean gets through with his brief prepared remarks, there is a buzz in the room, the hum of true believers, and Dean's feeling it too.

"I am happy to take comments, questions, and rude remarks if necessary," he says, smiling.

"I'd like to hear that Howard Dean yell!" a man calls from the back of the room.

Dean keeps his smile, which contracts a bit as if to say, Surely this is a friendly question; the man has paid his way in, after all. He proceeds good-naturedly, but tentatively: "If you want to hear that Howard Dean yell, you've got to crank the noise level up, 'cause I can guarantee you, they didn't hear it in that room."

This, after all -- crowd noise that he had to shout over -- is his official explanation for the Scream, the famous series of exuberant but shrill-sounding exhortations to supporters in Des Moines. It had come after erstwhile frontrunner Dean's disappointing third-place finish in the Iowa caucuses in January 2004, and, both symbolically and literally, the Scream had instantly been regarded as the beginning of the end for his once high-flying campaign for the presidency.

"I was proud of it!" the man who asked the question clarifies.

Now Dean's smile is back in earnest. "That was a Rebel yell, you know!" And the roomful of Democrats explodes in laughter and applause.

The fact is that if Phil Bredesen, whose middle-of-the-road governing style has begun to make him a national figure, had been there, he might have recognized some kindred elements in this new, improved Howard Dean. His way with a crowd is every bit as deft as it was during the first three-fourths or so of his presidential campaign -- before attacks by his party rivals and the media, and maybe the weight of being a frontrunner, had seemed to wear him down.

All of his erstwhile populist fervor was there too, as Dean hit Nashville last week, midway through the new DNC chairman's ongoing 50-state whirlwind tour. And so was the made-easy policy-wonk explanations that had rendered this Yale man and physician-turned-politician so accessible to crowds during his presidential run and allowed him, early on in 2003, to spurt past all the better-known, more traditional Democratic wannabes.

So too was the tell-it-like-it-is style that galvanized the party faithful back then, the refusal to back down and be calculating that was every bit as important in his rise as his -- and campaign manager Joe Trippi's -- fund-raising innovations via the Internet.

He struck that note time and again in Nashville. As he put it during his sold-out talk on Tuesday night at Vanderbilt (part of the university's "Visions of America" series, which on Monday night had featured Ann Coulter and Al Sharpton!): "I don't know if we can win Tennessee in 2008 or not, but I know we can't if we don't show up and make our case before the people."

The Republicans have learned how to "demonize" Democrats in the South, Dean said. "We can't permit that, we won't permit that. We need to stand up for what we believe and be unashamed that we're Democrats. We have to be here for four years, on the ground, full-time. We can't be here for eight months and hope that we can somehow turn everything around."

What is new in the Howard Dean of 2005, or at least made more explicit, is his overt appeal to moral and even religious sanction.

"We don't ever have to be ashamed of our values," Dean said at Vanderbilt. He made a point of invoking Holy Writ, championing "paycheck-to-paycheck" working people against the predatory wealthy via the famous passage which says a rich man's entrance into the Kingdom of Heaven is as difficult as a camel's passing through the eye of a needle. He employed scripture to defend civil rights for gays: "When Jesus said 'love thy neighbor' he didn't mean choose which one to love."

Late in his presidential effort, Dean had been quoted as saying that he intended, if nominated, to discuss his religious faith openly during the general election campaign. Judged from afar, from news reports that were necessarily brief, that statement had seemed, to many observers, to be forced and artificial, so much pandering. Such a judgment may have been over-hasty. The salvific tone seemed to come naturally to Dean in Nashville.

It was present in his statement that the American electorate wanted "people at the top of government who stand up for traditional American values" and in this exhortation: "We need to talk about values and not be afraid of them. Until we do that, we're not going to win in the South."

It was evident in his accusation that the foreign policy of George W. Bush, in Iraq and elsewhere, had "surrendered 100 years of admiration in the world" by substituting "overwhelming military strength" for the "moral high ground" of the past.

And it was forcefully brought to the surface during the audience Q-and-A session that followed his Vanderbilt speech. Although most of the questions ran from polite to sympathetic, even adulatory, one or two contained barbs. One man chided Dean for leaving the Episcopal church -- apparently during his tenure as governor -- for what the questioner suggested was an argument over the provision of bicycle pathways. "What's the scriptural position on bike paths?" the man demanded.

Dean began by saying, "My guess is, there are as many scriptural references to bike paths as there are to gay people." When the applause that greeted that finally dissipated, he went on to explain that the issue had been one of access to unused church property, which the Episcopal church hierarchy had refused, not the appropriation of it by the state.

Dean then continued: "I think the role of churches in this country, the role of religions, is to make sure that as many of us as possible can enjoy God's blessings. I think the role of churches is to intervene in social situations where life doesn't seem to be fair. We can't make life fair to everybody, but I won't hold with a church, whether conservative or liberal or somewhere in between, that doesn't believe that the teachings of Jesus call for us to reach out to people who are in need."

The church's refusal to allow a bike-path flouted the public good, Dean said. "A church that stood up and wouldn't do that was not a church I wanted to belong to." He said that he had gone on to become a member of the Congregational Church, one with "no central authority, where each parish chooses its own minister." He nodded his head. "I enjoy that," he said, and went on to compare the practice to that of fundamentalist denominations in the South.

Candor like that was the sort of thing that growing numbers of Democrats may have feared would come across as over-the-edge in a 2004 showdown with George W. Bush. Ultimately, such idiosyncratic and upfront professions might have been the pretext for many of the party's primary voters to develop a form of buyers' remorse as the primary season developed. Arguably, it could also have been what caused them to drift toward Massachusetts senator John Kerry, a famously -- for better or for worse -- more cautious politician.

Maybe so, maybe no. But it apparently sounded like good theology -- and good politics -- to the audience at Vanderbilt's jam-packed Langford Auditorium, which gave Dean yet another of its several rousing hands.

The newly elected chairman of all Democrats even sounded accommodating on the touchstone issue of abortion. "I support Democrats of all kinds," he said in answer to one questioner. "I believe a pro-life Democrat is far better than a pro-life Republican." After a discernible pause, he then added: "I also believe a pro-life Democrat is better than practically any Republican."

But, for all his insistence that Democrats have to address head-on the morals and values questions of Southerners and Americans elsewhere, Dean stressed that on key matters of policy the party should do no backing up.

"It's not so much Democrat or Republican," he said. "It's getting somebody who'll stand up and do the right thing." There was an overlap of maybe 80 percent which both major parties shared with the electorate, he said. "I don't think if you disagree with people 80 percent of the time you'll get elected to anything, but you've got to stand by that odd 20 percent. It's our job to bring them to us rather than to chase after what we think they want."

What it comes down to, for Democrats in Tennessee and elsewhere, is a matter of balance, he said: "Lack of balance is bad for small children; it's bad for business and bad for building a community. It's how you get to that balance that the political process is all about. We're out of balance now. ... We have a position of extreme maladjustment because we have leadership that is based on ideology and doesn't care what the facts are."

That was the sort of thing that Howard Dean had to say when he showed up last week in Nashville. With remarkable consistency, he sounded such notes on Capitol Hill, on the Teddy Bart radio talk-show, at Vanderbilt, at the party fund-raiser, and, last of all, at predominantly African-American Tennessee State University.

His advice to fellow Democrats: "We have to be here for four years, on the ground, full-time. We can't be here for eight months and hope that we can somehow turn everything around. We've got to concentrate on state senators and county commissioners and road commissioners."

It remains to be seen whether Dean -- through energy, intellect, enthusiasm, or any combination of same -- can revitalize the Democratic Party's electoral prospects. Perhaps the outcome of the 2006 elections will afford some clue.

And there's another possibility. Though he claimed to have put aside future presidential ambitions when he accepted the DNC job, there were several perhaps telltale references in his remarks about the office he had once coveted. "That's why we need another president," he said at Vanderbilt, after reciting a litany of alleged Bush-administration errors. And, at another point: "We just need a fact-based presidency."

He may have gotten his best laugh from the Vanderbilt audience when he asked rhetorically, "How many people in this room really don't think that they couldn't be just as good a president as George W. Bush?"

It seemed obvious that Howard Dean still thinks that he would. n

H H H H H Quotations from Chairman Howard H H H H H

The Schiavo case: That's a personal kind of tragedy, and I just don't think that's the kind of thing politicians need to get involved with. They know nothing about this woman's life; they know nothing about her family; they know nothing about the circumstances. I just think they ought to stay out of it. I thought Senator Frist was way off base. You can't make a diagnosis looking at a videotape. You can't do that. She's been looked at by a whole bunch of doctors, and we probably ought to trust their opinion.

His role as DNC chairman: I'm going to fight. I'm going to stand up. I'm going to be tough. But the one thing I will not do: I will never divide this country by race, by gender, by sexual orientation. We need to win by appealing to the best of America and not to the worst.

The after-effects of the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal: It had an adverse effect on people who write for a living. It rewarded journalists for titillating gossip stories. People got promoted and investigative reporting went out the window because the big story was about sex and salaciousness and misbehavior, not about substantial things, like politicians [on the take] from defense companies.

On social equality and society: If you look through what makes democracies successful, you can correlate it with the status of women. You can correlate social instability and long-term success of a society by the balance between the wealth at the top and what the standard of living is at the bottom and in between. If you want a successful society, there has to be a better balance than there is today.

On Christianity and politics: The values of America are much closer to the Democratic Party than the Republican Party. The Bible talks about Jesus reaching out to people who are different than He was, reaching out to sinners, reaching out to everybody and including everybody. I don't see those values in the Republican Party. I see a party that can't balance the budget. There is no moral virtue in leaving a debt to our children larger than the one we inherited.

On George W. Bush as a politician: The president is not much of a policy guy, but he's a good campaigner. He comes to places like Tennessee and says, "Those people -- meaning people like me, the 'bi-coastal elite' -- they don't like you; they don't respect you; they don't honor you. But I'm one of you, so let's go get 'em!" People get emotionally stirred up by that.

Morals issues: We have to acknowledge people's fears. It's not just about gay rights and abortion. It's fear of what happens to their families. What they need is a signal from the Democratic Party that we're going to make it easier for them to raise their kids. The mistake is to think we're going to talk people out of their fears. These are not logical fears. Most kids will turn out fine, even in this era of bad stuff on television and things like that. You cannot sit down and logically explain to people why they have their fears.

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