Misreading Howard Dean

By March 20, 2008Article, Atlantic Eye

TBILISI, Georgia, March 20 (UPI) — I grew up in a U.S. military community overseas, straddling German and U.S. society. I was a student leader in high school and college. I am a centrist — conservative on defense and economic issues, libertarian on social issues. I am of the view that government should stay out of our bedrooms and out of our private lives. In the military you lead by example.

My first recollection of U.S. political campaigns was in 1981 when I licked envelopes for Mario Cuomo’s bid for governor of New York. I soon became a minor member of Cuomo’s Commandos — the team of young Turks in the lieutenant governor’s campaign team. Twenty-three years later I would co-host a fundraiser with Charles Adams and Gen. Wesley Clark for U.S. citizens in Geneva, Switzerland. Clark was my first choice for president. I became a founding member of the Democratic Expat Leadership Council and a member of the Democratic Party’s National Advisory Board.

I would soon meet former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, the chairman of the U.S. Democratic Party. Dean is still remembered as the Democratic front-runner in early 2004 who lost the Iowa caucuses and let out a much-played yelp or screech. It is a profoundly unfair picture. I have found Dean to be thoughtful, inspiring, honest and smart. He leads by example.

And let me be very clear, I am not the DNC’s spokesman or communications director. This is my own personal and unsolicited point of view.

Dean was the promulgator of the Democratic Party’s 50-state strategy. The strategy, which was not without its detractors, had Dean refusing to concede a single state with the goal of placing field staff in every one of them. It proved to be a winning formula in the 2006 congressional elections. Dean’s argument was that by leaving states to the Republican Party and letting them go unchallenged, the Democratic Party was providing an Achilles heel. In military terms it is protecting and reinforcing the weakest flank because it strengthens a field commander’s overall fighting ability. Give the enemy an inch, and they’ll take a yard.

Being a good leader means selecting a good staff. Dean has hired a superb group of bright young people to work with him. The staffers I work most closely with are Andrew Wright and Carl Chidlow. Carl, like me, is a Syracuse alumnus, though some years behind. Andrew is the director of the National Advisory Board and Carl is the DNC finance director. The energy and dedication these two gentlemen bring to their work is reflective of the entire DNC staff. The staff stand their ground when needed. Leadership means not having lackeys around you but people you can trust to tell you things you do not want to hear. Of the DNC Board, the one I know best is Treasurer Andrew Tobias, who is refreshingly nice, competent and discreet.

Dean’s public and press image is a complete disservice to him. It is nowhere near reality. The more I interact with him, the more I realize how incorrect and unfair the public’s image of him is. He is most recently being scapegoated for the discounted Democratic primaries in Michigan and Florida.

It was neither Dean nor the DNC who brought about these problems. It was the leadership of Michigan and Florida that did. Both Michigan and Florida did not like Iowa and New Hampshire having first dibs in the election cycle and decided to move their primaries, causing musical chairs among the primary states with each trying to best position itself. The result was pre-primary chaos and the wastage of enormous resources and energy. The founding fathers knew the big states would always want to ignore the smaller states. It was one of the main reasons for creating the Electoral College. We now know how prescient the founding fathers indeed were.

My first face-to-face with Dean was in London in 2005 at a DexPat Leadership Council dinner for U.S. citizens abroad. What struck me was how down-to-earth and self-effacing the governor is. Here was a man listening to a potpourri of U.S. citizens from a variety of fields and endeavors. He was genuinely engaged and listening with alacrity. I have met him on many occasions since.

Dean has led the Democratic National Committee to new fundraising heights. The DNC has raised more money in each of the last three years than was raised in those previously by huge margins, and much of it from small and medium donors. It has allowed the DNC to build an infrastructure for the 21st century. It is one of the reasons I support Dean.

In the United States, regrettably, money talks. This is politically distasteful to Dean. But Dean knows that having capital allows the Democratic Party to fight the good fight.

Howard Dean is a centrist, a fiscal conservative and a superb leader.

Had I known in 2004 the Dean I know today, I would have supported him for president.

I have a lot of time for Dean — the rest of America should as well.

(UPI Columnist Marc S. Ellenbogen is chairman of the Global Panel Foundation and president of the Prague Society. A venture capitalist with seats in Berlin and Prague, he spends much of his time on the road.)