|Governor Howard Dean announces his candidacy for president in front of a crowd of 5,000 supporters in Burlington, Vermont. Dean will visit San Antonio on August 25. Photo by John Pettitt/DeanForAmerica|
Gray Brooks is a young Southern gentleman from Alabama, the kind who says "yessir" and "no sir" and attends a small Christian college. One day last May he drove the 1,244 miles to presidential candidate Howard Dean's headquarters in Burlington, Vermont and deposited himself, uninvited, on the doorstep at 9 a.m. Soon he was working seven days a week, sometimes until 1:30 a.m., sleeping on the floor of a room with five other equally dedicated college volunteers. They did take one vacation recently - a weekend trip to Lake Placid, New York, to hear Dean speak. "It doesn't seem fanatic to me," Brooks says. "I really do want Howard Dean to be president, and it just seems logical to me to try as hard as you can. A lot of people feel that way." He's not exaggerating. Howard Dean first inspired shock and awe among Washington insiders by raising more than $7 million and by pulling within striking distance of John Kerry in New Hampshire and Dick Gephardt in Iowa. But for all the stories about Dean's extraordinary success in attracting supporters via the Internet, an even more consequential development has been less noticed: the extraordinary number of Dean volunteers on the ground, the lion's share of them young. By spring Dean had organizations in all 50 states, remarkable at this early date in the process; what's even more remarkable is that Dean headquarters had about as much to do with building this network as it did with recruiting Gray Brooks. When Dean's official campaign organization, Dean for America, opened its door with six staffers and $157,000 in the bank last winter, organizers knew that they would have to tap the grassroots to have any hope of being taken seriously. "We just didn't know how we were going to do it," remembers campaign manager Joe Trippi. He didn't realize it was already being done - by students. Earlier this year, two D.C.-area college kids, Michael Whitney and Ari Mittleman, heard Dean speak and, two weeks later, put up the first Dean student Web site. By that date, students from dozens of colleges and universities had launched 10 pro-Dean groups; before March was out, they had started a national organization, Students for Dean, with 30 campus chapters. By early July, Students for Dean had 184 chapters, all working without any official connection to the Dean campaign. As many as a third of their coordinators had never done anything political before in their lives. Now Dean has his grassroots army, and the campaign's playing it for all it's worth. "They want to work 18, 20 hours a day," Trippi says of the young interns Dean has attracted to Burlington. And it's blowing Trippi's mind. "As somebody who's been through seven presidential campaigns" - beginning, in 1980, with Ted Kennedy - "I feel like I'm in my first one."
This could mean far more for American politics than an unexpected boost for a single candidate. For over 20 years, the Democratic Party has worked successfully to structure the nominating system to give the advantage to the "safest" candidate as early as possible in the process. The current system - a direct response to George McGovern's youth-centered, but disastrous, general election campaign against Richard Nixon in 1972 - has brought some remarkable political successes, but at the price of stripping the party of the qualities associated with youth at its best: intensity, energy, commitment, momentum.
There are plenty of the starry-eyed idealists among the Students for Dean, to be sure: They sign their e-mails with nostrums that sound like '70s dorm room posters. But they are also focused, savvy, and, more often than not, moderate. Maya Herman, chapter head at the University of Chicago, was first attracted by the effect she fears Bush's growing budget deficits could have "on our children and grandchildren" (Dean is a deficit hawk). Gray Brooks's presidential second choice is General Wesley Clark. The thing that seems to keep the ideologically diverse organizers remarkably peaceful is a shared sense that, in a low and dishonest era, they have found in Dean an honest man.
The grassroots boom does have some Democrats worried. In May, the Democratic Leadership Council released a scathing memo singling out Howard Dean for betraying "the mainstream values, national pride, and economic aspirations of middle-class and working people" that allow Democrats to win general elections, not just primaries. It hinted at Dean's two most controversial positions, his endorsement of gay "civil unions" in Vermont and his opposition to the administration's actions in Iraq. Al From and Bruce Reed, the founder and president, respectively, of the DLC took a second swipe at Dean in a Wall Street Journal Op-Ed. Without ever actually mentioning Dean by name, From and Reed chastised Democratic candidates to "follow President Clinton's strategy and seize the vital center, not veer left."
One consultant to a rival Democratic hopeful, who insists on anonymity, dismisses Dean as a new McGovern. "Maybe they need to run a guy so that people remember what it's like to really lose," he says. "To really lose bad."
The students, for their part, suspect another motive behind the backlash: fear of losing power. Dean foot soldiers are overwhelming the front-loaded nominating season that was put in place by DLC partisans, they note. Says Ruth Link-Gellis, an activist at D.C.'s George Washington University, "The party structure that they've worked so hard to design is falling down around them."
And not, the organizers argue, for a fool's errand. Dean can win the general election, they claim, and as they make their case they often sound like veteran political operatives: Keith Causin, an organizer at Queens College, complains about Democrats who bemoan Republican marketing savvy "rather than trying to counter with good three-word catch phrases" of their own. Link-Gellis, a former civil-liberties organizer, even extends Dean a pass on his NRA-approved gun control positions as one of the things that "would win big points with people in the South." Asserts Causin: "Once Dean really starts campaigning, people are going to see that he's not this kind of weird radical lefty, that he's actually quite an effective campaigner. A moderate voice." These are not your father's wild-eyed collegiate politicos. They want to change the rules. •
Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.