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Howard Dean's "Democratic revolution"?

Karl Smyth
28 October 2008

In a piece noting how Howard Dean's career has turned around since becoming Democratic National Committee Chairman, J. Patrick Coolican argues that the Democrats' bright electoral fortunes in the past couple years are a clear validation of the "fifty state strategy" Dean himself launched in 2005.

By allowing candidates to move closer to the centre over issues such as gun control and abortion rights in certain areas of the country, Coolican argues, the Democrats have become far more competitive across the United States; moreover, Coolican suggests that "Republicans better find themselves a Howard Dean, and fast" if they want to arrest the slow bleed from red to blue that is expected to continue at polling booths next week.

While Coolican is right to praise Dean's energetic stewardship of the Democratic Party in the past three years, and his protracted efforts to court conservative voters, I would be hesitant to suggest - as Coolican strongly implies - that we are witnessing or are on the cusp of some kind of "Democratic Revolution" similar to the one masterminded by Newt Gingrich and his GOP peers in 1994.

Unquestionably, the Democrats are likely to reap even greater electoral spoils in the House and Senate, and are tantalisingly close to securing an overall majority in both. However, is this surge of support fuelled by some enthralling ideological vision for the future outlined by the Democratic leadership, or a substantive legislative and policy agenda serving as a roadmap to traverse the difficult times ahead?

The simple answer is no: in all actuality, a considerable chunk of Democratic support can be attributed to the widespread groundswell of resentment towards the outgoing Bush administration's anaemic performance in the White House and the flailing state of the US economy. Opposition to the Iraq War has, unquestionably, played an important role too, but the degree to which the Democratic party has eagerly crafted its policy platform around this one issue for so long actually makes it appear all the more narrow when compared to the concise reforms outlined in Larry Hunter's "Contract with America".

Moreover, in contrast to the class of 1994, the Democrats' majority leadership of Congress over the past two years has done little to arrest plummeting public approval ratings, with right-track/wrong-track numbers sliding to record lows and the performance of government institutions widely panned by politicos and public alike.

This is not to say that the Democrats are floundering; indeed, compared to the mire the Republicans are trudging through right now, there is plenty to be thankful for. However, considering the manner in which Democrats arrived at this envious position in the first place, it may be some time before we truly see a "liberal revolution" sweeping Washington the likes of which John McCain has prophesized on his campaign stops in recent days.

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