When former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean accepted the chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee, he was a pale copy of the screeching wild man who effectively ended his 2004 presidential bid in that memorable post-primary rant in Iowa.
Dr. Dean delivered a sober and low-key talk to the DNC's members on the imperative of more effective grass-roots organizing and fund raising. Such organizing had to be undertaken, he said, not only via the Internet, as in his campaign last year, but in the nation's neighborhoods, where the Republicans had bested his party.
He made relatively little mention of policy positions on which he intended to lead the Democrats back from their 2004 defeat. He particularly eschewed sharp criticism of the Iraq war, whose conception and implementation had been the centerpiece of his campaign.
Dr. Dean said he would "stand shoulder to shoulder" on policy matters with the party's congressional leaders, Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada and Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, and indicated he would leave policy shaping largely to them.
His focus was as a political mechanic in the traditional description of a party chairman. He would provide the nuts and bolts so the party could run more efficiently and then put it on a national track that would challenge the red-blue view of party strengths.
"We can't run 18 state presidential campaigns and expect to win," he said, alluding to the near-miss campaigns of Al Gore in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004. "We know we have [to have] a strategy for every state and territory, and it's very simple: Show up."
The advice was welcome to many DNC members who accepted more than appeared enthusiastic about Dr. Dean's election, which was achieved with an aggressive organizational effort against a notably weak field. Many still were concerned that Dr. Dean's bombastic opposition to the invasion of Iraq and ensuing war and occupation would feed the liberal image of the party that Republicans and other conservatives had so effectively demonized ever since the Nixon years.
But it can be argued that Dr. Dean's emergence as a national figure never was built on his organizational skills, which essentially were provided by young innovators recruited to his cause by his vociferous anti-war, anti-Bush message. It was that message that vaulted him to the head of the Democratic pack of presidential hopefuls in 2003 and early 2004.
A principal complaint against Senator Kerry was that his seeming ambivalence on the war tossed away the Democrats' best issue against the war-making president.
The question for Dr. Dean is how he can generate the same enthusiasm and commitment from fellow Democrats without using the issue that was his chief mobilizer as a presidential candidate and that is the basis of fierce Democratic opposition to the Bush administration.
The favorable publicity afforded the war effort by the recent elections in Iraq has, for the time being, increased support in the polls for Mr. Bush. But the insurgency continues to generate daily casualties, and with them unrest at home.
Dr. Dean has already said he will not be a presidential candidate in 2008. If he also intends to put aside his role as a sharp critic of the war and stick to organizing the party, he will be denying the Democrats his strongest political tool at precisely the time a vacuum exists in the party for making the case against Mr. Bush's worst misadventure.
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts has stepped into the breach with a blistering critique of the Bush record and a call for an immediate start to U.S. troop withdrawals. But he has become such a divisive force in the political wars as to diminish his effectiveness.
Until some other Democrat emerges with presidential potential to assume the role of chief party critic on the war, Dr. Dean will be engaging in unilateral disarmament by denying his party the persuasive voice that gave the Democrats the backbone they conspicuously lacked in the 2004 campaign.
Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Wednesdays and Fridays.
© 2005 Baltimore Sun