Over at the New York Times (quasi-)blog, Matt Bai is trying to take a bold stance against conventional wisdom by arguing that Howard Dean’s campaign did not, in fact, leave any lasting legacy for American politics:

Dr. Dean can hardly claim to have laid the rails for some powerful engine of change. His campaign, as he never tired of reminding us, was about “taking the country back,” which seemed another way of saying it was basically about winning.

It’s a nice try, but in this case the conventional wisdom (if that’s what it is – I thought the conventional wisdom, at least over at the Times, was that Dean was an unstable fanatic leading hordes of dateless college kids) is right. Bai’s basic argument, it seems, is that Dean didn’t run on a signature issue and therefore was only creative tactically but not ideologically. I think he’s wrong on two counts. First, as Dean himself has argued, the seeming unanimity among the Democratic candidates now obscures the fact that a year ago few were arguing that blasting Bush’s broken promises in Iraq, in public schools, and in the workplace was the Democrats’ route to success. Healthcare in particular was an issue that, while urgently important to millions of Americans for decades, Howard Dean put back on the map for a party largely convinced that because a zealous corporate lobby was able to tank a half-hearted moderate healthcare reform ten years ago it was relatively hopeless to try to cover most Americans.

Second, Bai is wrong to argue that Howard Dean’s tactics amounted to nothing more than really wanting to win. The significance of what Dean embarked on is demonstrated, as I argued at the time, by the incredulity of the New York Times magazine in trying to report what was driving his campaign. “Ordinary Americans convinced that there could be a connection between a broken political system and the challenges they’re confronting in their own lives? Must be like of some kind of Alchoholics Anonymous meeting. Why are they talking so much about themselves? Don’t they know only people who run for office are important?” An organizing model, like universal healthcare, is not a new idea. But what they have in common is that the Democratic party of the past couple decades has in large part left them to rust. And Howard Dean, for all his mistakes – like relying on Northeastern college students to canvass in Iowa rather than cultivating a stronger core of organizers from the state – helped bring them back to life.

There’s been a lot of talk recently among Democrats, particularly those committed to John Kerry, about how Howard Dean “brought people into the party.” That’s true, but it’s only half of the story, and in that sense is wishful thinking by those who want the Democratic party to stay the course of the past decade. Howard Dean, despite a conservative record of his own, chose that he could get farthest by being a vessel for a popular movement that existed before him and will continue after him – and in so doing, he took an important step towards bring the Democratic party back to the people.

The Wall Street Journal is closer to the truth than the New York Times on this one: “the most consequential loser since Barry Goldwater.”

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