Welcome back, Dr. Dean. I’m wincing right now. Don’t screw this up. You inherit a Democratic Party that is grasping at straws. Our campaign follies have been well documented, but our post-election malaise has been far worse. Instead of coming up with a solution for Social Security that preserves its viability and the needs of our seniors, we preposterously claim no crisis exists. We have failed to publicize a cohesive alternate worldview, like the Republicans in Congress did in the 1990s. Worst, we are navel-gazing at the expense of our nation’s real problems.
As for our leaders, we have Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) spouting defensive mundanities on Meet the Press, Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) waxing DeVillian, Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) putting folks to sleep on the Senate floor and Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) cloistered in a seminar room. The leadership vacuum has led pedestrian politicos like Gov. Mike Easley (D-N.C.) to consider themselves serious contenders for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination.
And then there’s you, Dr. Dean. A year after retreating from the national scene in embarrassment, you have landed on your feet with the chance to remake the party in your image. The problem is, your image is liberal, Northeastern and slightly nutty.
But… there is a glimmer of hope. The way you governed Vermont was practical, responsive and politically moderate. In a state that small, you learned the value of pothole politics and employed it well. If you can take that strategy of helping people with their everyday problems and apply it to the broader country, you will succeed in rebuilding the Democratic Party.
Getting the party back into the community is the key to our viability. I’m talking about getting our hands dirty and making a real difference in people’s lives. If the Republicans have a monopoly on federal power, let’s show them up using nothing more than the strength and resourcefulness of our volunteers. A strategy of community engagement is superior to any plan that involves gearing our message to evangelicals, propping up celebrity candidates or resorting to simplistic sloganeering. Those ideas are cosmetic, whereas putting the party to work for the people is substantive. As folks from Boone, N.C., see Democrats—Democrats!—embarking on civic rehabilitation projects in their town, you can be darn sure they will take note. The town won’t go blue overnight, but if even a few perceptions are challenged, the party will be closer to reclaiming the respect and admiration of ordinary folks.
Going local is also important because of the way electoral politics works in small towns. It’s hard to be discreet about political inclinations in places where everyone knows everyone’s business, so the supporter of a locally unpopular candidate is faced with a grueling choice: set yourself uncomfortably apart from the people with whom you live and work, vote with the community or just stay home. Voting pressures exist everywhere, but urban dwellers generally cast their ballots amidst a sea of strangers and must only defend their vote to family and friends—not an entire community. In rural Alamance County, where I worked as a 2004 Election Day volunteer, Kerry supporters faced everything from strange looks to rude treatment. “Township momentum” is a powerful force, and President George W. Bush rode the tide to re-election last year.
But township momentum is not the exclusive domain of Republicans. In 2000 and 2004, there were strange, localized sprinklings of deep blue in otherwise staunchly Republican states. These areas are where the momentum tipped in the other direction. It’s time for our Democratic volunteers to help switch small towns and rural areas back to our party. Next time Aunt Mabel heads to the quilting bee, let’s give her cause to compliment those “nice scruffy boys” who fixed the collapsed roof of City Hall. Plant the seed for our party and watch it grow.
Dr. Dean, you may be the man to lead us in this direction. You have a huge grassroots following. You have faith in action. But let’s get the kids off the LaRouchesque direct mailing campaigns and flyers that smear the President. Sic ’em instead on America’s social problems, because we’re coming apart at the seams. Let’s make the Democrats America’s hope, once again.
Andrew Collins is a Trinity senior, former University Editor for The Chronicle and president of Duke for Kerry. His column appears Tuesdays.
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