The Great Liberal Hope

Howard Dean is aiming for the White House, but first it's Miami Beach

"No names," insisted Bud Russell. That was the first ground rule if Kulchur wanted to attend a private $1000-a-head South Beach fundraiser for former Vermont governor Howard Dean's presidential campaign. Normally Russell would be thrilled with the publicity. The Atlanta-based financial consultant and Democratic Party activist has made it his personal mission to ensure that come July 2004 and the party convention, its triumphant nominee is Dean. To that end he's been crisscrossing the Southeast, drumming up support from the gay community -- particularly its wealthier figures, many of whom, like Russell, keep second homes in South Florida.

"There are going to be some people there who are still in the closet," Russell cautioned of this Dean fundraiser at the home of prominent gay party promoter Jeffrey Sanker. "They may not be comfortable with having their names printed in the newspaper." But as Kulchur began to explain that he's not interested in outing anyone's sexual orientation, Russell chuckled. "No, no," he broke in. "Everybody's out of the closet about being gay. These are Bob Graham backers who are closeted about supporting Dean."

Russell was only partly joking. As Kulchur reported this past October, in some circles Florida Sen. Bob Graham's presidential bid is viewed as coy positioning for the vice-presidential slot on the eventual Democratic ticket. The 2004 campaign's opening battles -- the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary -- may be nine months away, but the race among leading Democratic hopefuls is already in full swing. And no candidate has more buzz right now than Dean, from both media pundits and grassroots volunteers.

Off and running: Howard Dean hits South Beach on his way to Washington
Steve Satterwhite
Off and running: Howard Dean hits South Beach on his way to Washington

"I am Howard Dean and I'm here to represent the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party," the ex-gov announced this past February, drawing a visceral response from those despondent over the Dems' attempt to refashion themselves as amorphous centrists. To the left-leaning faithful, Dean is nothing less than the Great Liberal Hope. He's for rolling back President Bush's tax cuts and enacting universal healthcare coverage. He unabashedly supports a woman's right to abortion, even controversial "partial birth" abortions. He offers no caveats about maintaining affirmative action. And in a move that made him a national hero to the gay community, as governor of Vermont (a position he held for an unprecedented eleven years before choosing to run for president) he signed a marriage-style "civil union" law. Gay couples in Vermont now have the same rights to employee benefits, child custody, inheritances, and hospital visitations as heterosexual couples.

But it's the enthusiastic support of antiwar activists that has truly buoyed Dean, grabbing headlines in New York and San Francisco as the size of his campaign events dwarf the Democratic competition. Dean continually reminds audiences that he's the only Democratic candidate to oppose invading Iraq: "I didn't support the president on Iraq, and I'm not ashamed of it."

"When I was back in my twenties, the Vietnam War was going on," Dean recalled at a New Hampshire rally last month. "There was a lot of opposition to that war. And in this state, in 1968, there was a senator named Eugene McCarthy who drove an incumbent president, Lyndon Johnson, out of the race.... And that's going to happen again."

Much of the Democratic Party's leadership, however, identifies Dean with a different Vietnam-era crusader: George McGovern. Thanks to a groundswell of primary support from antiwar activists and younger liberals, McGovern leapfrogged over the party's more moderate favorites to win the 1972 presidential nomination. Yet in the subsequent election against Richard Nixon, he proved to be so detached from the American body politic that he led Democrats to their most overwhelming defeat of the postwar era. In the process, many of the party's core constituencies were so alienated they weren't pulled back into the fold until Bill Clinton's ascendancy.

Democratic Party insiders are fearful of replaying 1972 and returning to the political wilderness, particularly as Dean sheds his dark-horse status. A recent New Hampshire poll has Dean tied for first place with Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry at 21 percent. None of the other presumed front-runners -- John Edwards, Richard Gephardt, or Joseph Lieberman -- even breaks into double digits.

Also the $2.6 million Dean has raised so far is much more than analysts predicted. And though it's eclipsed by Kerry's $7 million and Edwards's $7.4 million, Dean's war chest is still more than enough to keep his operation rolling.

Of course, with the fall of Baghdad and the resulting disarray of the antiwar movement, it remains to be seen if Dean's momentum will slow. But Dean himself has not let images of Iraqis dancing in the streets temper his criticism of Bush's war plans. "We've gotten rid of him -- I suppose that's a good thing," he said of Saddam Hussein at a Washington, D.C., candidates' forum last week. "But there's going to be a long period when the United States is going to be maintaining Iraq, and that's going to cost this country's taxpayers a lot of money that could be spent on schools and kids."

As outlined in a new position paper, Dean's own vision of reconstructing Iraq calls for control by the United Nations, not the U.S. military. "I reject the notion that the United States can put Iraq back together alone with the help of Britain and presumably Eritrea and Uzbekistan as part of the coalition of the willing," he scoffed. "Whatever else he may be, Donald Rumsfeld is no Douglas MacArthur."

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