Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics

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9780312610623: Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics
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With a New Afterword

In 2008, Barack Obama's groundbreaking presidential campaign seemingly rewrote all the rules in electoral politics and heralded a new progressive era in America. What has become of the thrilling grassroots political movement that defined Obama's campaign and reshaped the electoral map? Ari Berman's Herding Donkeys answers and illuminates this vital question, mapping the evolution of modern American politics from Howard Dean to the Tea Party, and painting a vivid picture of the fight for political power in America today.

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About the Author:

ARI BERMAN is a political correspondent for The Nation and an Investigative Journalism Fellow at the Nation Institute. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, and he is a frequent commentator on MSNBC and National Public Radio. He lives in New York City.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Herding Donkeys
1 INSURGENT VS. ESTABLISHMENTI was the biggest insult you could have--an outside-the-Beltway guy who didn't want to play by the Washington rules.--Howard DeanIt was one of those expansively clear summer days in the Mountain West. On August 23, 2003, Howard Dean's campaign had just embarked on the frenetic Sleepless Summer Tour--ten cities in four days across 6,147 miles, raising a quick million via its campaign blog in the process. You could watch the dollar amount inch upward in real time on a giant baseball bat posted on the website. Dean had kicked the tour off in Falls Church, Virginia, then flew to Milwaukee. That morning he was headed to Portland, followed by Seattle, Spokane, San Antonio, Austin, Chicago, and ultimately concluding in New York City's Bryant Park. In between Milwaukee and Seattle, the campaign added an unannounced stop in the most seemingly impractical of places--Boise, Idaho.Idaho didn't get a whole lot of visitors from national Democrats, except maybe for trips to their ski chalets and summer homes (John Kerry had one in Ketchum). "Let It Be Perpetual"--the state's motto--might as well have described the Republican control of government there. So when a few local Democrats in Boise requested some face time with the former Vermont governor, they didn't expect to get an affirmative reply. But Dean unexpectedly said yes, as he was prone to do with these types of requests. After much internalwrangling among his staff, the campaign figured it needed a refueling stop anyway, so what the hell? Let's go to Boise!As Dean's chartered Boeing 737, otherwise known as the Grassroots Express, took off from Milwaukee, his press aide, Matt Vogel, announced the stop. The campaign was going to deplane for an hour in Boise and was expecting "fifty people or so," Vogel said. When Dean landed on the tarmac, 450 people were waiting to greet him, holding blue DEAN FOR AMERICA signs. A social worker named Delmar Stone could barely contain his exuberance. "The last time I was this excited about someone who could change the world," Stone said, "was when I heard about Jesus!"Dean was not quite the Messiah, but he had been on quite a roll. He'd just graced the covers of Time and Newsweek and would soon shatter Bill Clinton's three-month fund-raising record by amassing an army of small donors over the Internet, using that money to air TV ads in six states a full five months before voters in Iowa went to their first-in-the-nation caucus. He now led in polls in Iowa and New Hampshire and had staff on the ground in twelve states and volunteers in all fifty. Assembling this kind of organization by August, said Dean's media consultant Steve McMahon, was "unprecedented. It's never even been contemplated." Dean's mad-scientist campaign guru, Joe Trippi, dubbed it "a frickin' revolution." Boise was living proof. If the campaign could draw hundreds of people for an unannounced stop in the Republican hinterlands, the possibilities were endless. By discarding the old playbook, Dean had become a new type of candidate, running a different kind of campaign.Dean stood onstage behind a large American flag perched on a hangar. The five-foot-eight, 180-pound Vermonter, who was often described as "sartorially challenged," wore a blue and white seersucker shirt with the sleeves rolled up (it gave him a salt-of-the-earth look), dotted red tie, and black chino pants, held tight by his late brother Charlie's black and silver rivet belt, which he wore every day. (In 1973, twenty-four-year-old Charlie, the most likely politician in the Dean family, traveled to war-torn Southeast Asia andnever came back, killed by guerrilla captors in Laos.) Next to Dean onstage rested another flag. "You see this flag?" he asked, grabbing it for emphasis. "This flag does not belong to John Ashcroft and the right wing of the Republican Party! This flag belongs to the people of the United States of America," he said sternly, with more than a tinge of anger in his gravelly voice, "and we're gonna take it back!" As it happened, Attorney General Ashcroft was scheduled to be in Boise the very next day, defending the controversial Patriot Act, which nearly every Democrat in Congress blindly went along with in the aftermath of 9/11, one of a series of capitulations to President Bush that Dean and his followers deemed unforgivable. The crowd loved Dean's fiery rhetoric and plainspoken populism, especially when he asked, "When are Democrats going to stand up and be Democrats again?"At the end of the impromptu rally, Dean promised to return to Idaho as soon as he could. Indeed, he went back two months later during another swing through the West, prompting a local columnist to joke that he must have a girlfriend in town, he visited so much. There was some logic to the Boise visit--Idaho would hold its caucus between the Wisconsin primary on February 17 and a glut of nine primaries on March 2, and Dean was already preparing for a lengthy primary. But the larger meaning was symbolic, a message to fellow Democrats not to take anything for granted, for Dean's campaign--thanks to its grassroots support--could go anywhere, at any time, and leave its imprint.A Democrat hadn't held a major statewide office in Idaho since 1994, the year Republicans took over everything. The last man to do so, former governor Cecil Andrus, happened to be in the crowd that day. "I've never seen this kind of energy in Boise," the seventy-two-year-old Andrus told Dean's adman, Mark Squier. A careful student of political imagery, Squier watched the scene with amazement. "There's a bunch of old-timers in the crowd," Squier reported to Trippi, "and they're going, Finally!" Squier punched his fist in the air to capture the intensity of the moment. "A Democrat who's notafraid to grab the flag and stick it in the ground ... It's like they've been dying twenty years in the desert looking for someone that they can beat back with." Such experiences drove home Dean's conviction that there were Democrats everywhere, in the reddest of so-called red America, and that it was time for the national party to stop pretending they didn't exist. 
 
Twice a year, the various members of the Democratic Party--state party leaders, representatives from the different interest groups, elder statesmen--gather for the biannual meeting of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) in Washington. During the election season, the Democratic candidates for president are invited to speak. These functions tend to be polite, sterile, scripted, backslapping affairs. That wasn't what Dean had in mind when he arrived at the podium on the afternoon of February 21, 2003.Just a few weeks earlier, Colin Powell had gone before the UN and made what many pundits and politicians deemed to be an unassailable case that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction and needed to be forcibly disarmed. But Dean still wasn't convinced, and he was increasingly agitated by the unwillingness of Democratic leaders in Congress and on the campaign trail to question the Bush administration's march to war--and the broader failure of Democrats to challenge Bush on the domestic front. "The Democrats were shell-shocked, they were behaving like Republicans, they were afraid of their own shadow," Dean said of the mood at the time. "And the Democratic public really wanted something different." But he hadn't yet articulated precisely those sentiments, and no one really knew who he was. In January 2003, Dean still had only $157,000 in the bank and seven staffers crammed into a tiny office (the kitchen doubled as a conference room) above a pub in Burlington. Al Sharpton was leading him in the polls, to say nothing of John Kerry, John Edwards, Dick Gephardt, and Joe Lieberman.At 10:45 a.m., Dean sat in his hotel room at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill. He'd just gotten off a red-eye (his preferred mode of travel) from California and was operating on two hours of sleep, which even for a doctor/politician was pushing it. He was due to speak at 11:15 and hadn't yet prepared a speech. "So what do I have to say?" he asked his small group of advisers--media consultant Steve McMahon, then-campaign manager Rick Ridder, longtime aide Kate O'Connor. McMahon brought along his business partner, Joe Trippi, to feel out the candidate that day. Dean had met Trippi only a handful of times but knew of his reputation as a bit of a loose cannon, wildly inventive but deeply insecure and difficult to control. Trippi urged the candidate to pose a series of rhetorical questions about the decaying state of the Democratic Party. "Let's take it to them," Trippi said."This is a little incendiary for Capitol Hill," Ridder said worriedly."We need to push the button now to create the movement," Trippi responded."Movements don't win elections," Ridder said, "candidates do.""This will create a buzz," McMahon chimed in, "but is it the buzz we need now?"Dean, ever the pugilist, liked Trippi's idea. "Let's just draw the contrast," he said.Trippi wanted him to say "What the fuck happened to the Democratic Party?"Dean knew he couldn't be quite so explicit. "How about if I say, 'What I want to know is'?" Dean pulled an envelope out of his pocket, kneeled down in front of a coffee table, and scribbled a litany of one-word indictments. The entire speech, if you could call it that, was hatched in ten minutes. "There was a dynamic tension in the room," said Dean's campaign chairman, Steve Grossman, "that led me to believe that Howard had something he needed to say to the DNC, to the American people, to the media, and he knew this was the moment." But as was so often the case, nobody quite knew exactly what shoot-from-the-hip-Howard would say once he took the stage.His staff had passed out little packages of Vermont maple syrup and cheddar cheese as goody baskets, so Dean started the speech with a line thanking his campaign team for its hard work. Then he paused, licked his upper lip, and got right to the point."What I want to know," he said in a deadly serious monotone, "is why in the world the Democratic Party leadership is supporting the president's unilateral attack on Iraq." So much for a formal introduction. Scattered cheers came from a group of supporters holding white Dean signs in the back of the room.Usually, political speeches take a while to get going, but Dean chose not to bury the lede, as they say in the news business, and continued his refrain. "What I want to know is why are Democratic Party leaders supporting tax cuts? The question is not how big the tax cut should be, the question should be can we afford a tax cut at all with the largest deficit in the history of this country?" A few more isolated cheers. Most members of the audience sat uncomfortably in their seats."What I want to know is why we're fighting in Congress about the Patient's Bill of Rights when the Democratic Party ought to be standing up for health care for every single American man, woman, and child in this country." More nervous clapping and scattered cheers."What I want to know is why our folks are voting for the president's No Child Left Behind bill that leaves every child behind, every teacher behind, every school board behind, and every property tax payer behind." Dean was picking up steam, and amid a few more hoots and hollers people were starting to stand up and get in on the act. He waited for a moment, then delivered the punch line he'd unknowingly borrowed from the late senator Paul Wellstone, who was killed in a plane crash days before the election in October 2002."I'm Howard Dean," he told the room, "and I'm here to represent the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party!" The room finally exploded, with more than one person asking themselves, "Who is this guy?!"Steve Grossman led the DNC from 1997 to 1999 and had sat through more than a few of these gatherings. He'd never seen one like this before. "The response to all of the candidates was rather tepid, but people flew out of their seats for Howard," he said. "The applause was thunderous." Grossman sensed immediately the larger significance of the speech. "He challenged the Democratic Party right to its core," Grossman said. "To some extent he was challenging the people in the room, but they didn't see it that way, because they were always chafing under party orthodoxy and many of them were grassroots activists and they were looking for somebody to galvanize them and pull them out of that morass." Dean emerged the clear winner of the early cattle call. "He just blew those people away," said Joe Klein of Time magazine. "It was one of the most effective speeches I've ever seen a candidate give." The question was, would it be a temporary blip or the beginning of something bigger?The Dean offensive had begun. For Trippi, "it was sort of like love at first sight," he recalled. Soon after, he went up to Burlington to run the campaign full-time. He and Dean proved a combustible mix, like throwing vinegar on baking soda in chemistry class. "There's an unpredictability about Howard Dean that's mirrored by the unpredictability of Joe Trippi," Grossman said. "You never knew on any given day exactly how it was going to turn out." Dean's speech on February 21 marked the beginning of that wild ride, which would continue long after his presidential campaign came crashing apart."My goal was not to be the best friend of all the people I was running against," Dean said. "My goal was to win. And I thought the party wasn't going to win unless we underwent fundamental change." His DNC speech, more than any other single event, set the tone for the rest of the campaign and shifted the arc of the Democratic Party for years to come. What direction the party would take, however, was hardly a settled question. Could Democrats once again become a party of the people, motivated by core principles and powered by grassroots activists out in the states? Or would theparty remain a Washington-centric institution, plagued by caution and calculation and dominated by a privileged group of megadonors and political operatives? In the weeks and months and years that followed, Dean would become a folk hero to insurgent Democrats across the country, but also a marked man among a circle of increasingly discredited yet stubbornly unyielding power brokers eager to hold on to their turf. The fight was much bigger than one person; Dean was only the match that lit the fire. 
 
A year and a half earlier, Dean strolled into the office of his top aide, Kate O'Connor, a thin, wiry, meticulous thirty-seven-year-old native Vermonter, and casually told her he was planning to run for president. She barely blinked. "If George Bush can do it," O'Connor told her boss, "then why can't you?"In presidential politics, there are really only two types of characters worth paying attention to: the establishment candidates and the insurgents. Those in the former club rely on their lifetime of experience, well-to-do friends, media connections, and influential circle of advisers to bulldoze over their lesser opponents. The British writer Henry Fairlie, in 1955, famously described "the Establishment" as "the whole matrix of official and social relations within which power is exercised." Despite claims to the contrary, such an establishment most certainly still exists.Insurgents, by contrast, possess none of these claims to power and usually start off broke and unknown. They must create buzz--usually by saying something unusually substantive fo...

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