MY GUY IS about to crash and burn in an Iowa cornfield.
I can feel it. I have a sense about these things, especially in Iowa. I
have a kind of clairvoyance in Iowa. I can smell death in Iowa.
While the candidate smiles and some of the staffers daydream about White House posts, our campaign has grown sick with all the symptoms of the old politics: infighting and petty jealousy among the campaign staff, gaffes by the candidate, cannibalistic ads by the other Democratic contenders – all of it beneath the steady eyes of the scavenger political press, always on the lookout for stray hunks of flesh.
No, we’re going down.
And the worst part is this: There is nothing more I can do. After months of scraping and cajoling and pleading just to get the plane down the runway, now that we’re finally aloftand the rest of the crew is celebrating â€” I look out the window and the wings are coming off.
And I’m the only one who sees it.
I desperately want out.
Every fiber of my being is telling me to get out.
But I can’t.
For the better part of a year, I have been the one person inside Howard Dean’s presidential campaign saying that we could actually win. Back when I signed on as campaign manager, back when we had seven people on staff, $100,000 in the bank, and only four hundred thirty-two known supporters, back when you answered the phones yourself or they just kept ringing, back when Howard Dean was little more than an asterisk, the last name on a long list of Democratic presidential candidates, I was the one looking people in the eye and telling them: Look, we’re gonna win this frickin’ thing.
Now, here it is the end of 2003, and we’re actually on top, ahead in the polls, in the process of raking in more than $50 million, $15.8 million in this fund-raising quarter alone – a record – most of it from small donations of $100 or less. And whose fund-raising record are we beating? Our own! From the quarter before. We have an army of almost 600,000 firedup supporters, not just a bunch of chicken-dinner donors, but activists, believers, people who have never been politically involved before and who are now living and breathing this campaign. Through them, we have tapped into a whole new vein of democracy and proven the Internet as a vibrant political tool. Now everyone is paying attention. The labor unions are beginning to endorse us. Al Gore has endorsed us. The media that we had to beg for coverage a few months ago has all but coronated Howard Dean as the Democratic nominee. We got the covers of Time and Newsweek. We are the story. And finally the other people in the campaign are beginning to mumble what I’ve been screaming for a year: Hey, we ‘re gonna win this frickin’ thing.
Only I don’t believe it anymore.
The Iowa caucuses are a little more than a month away and we are bleeding. Our momentum is gone. Our message is getting lost. We’re spending all our time and energy deflecting attacks from other campaigns. Our guy has become an unmitigated disaster on the road. The unscripted candor that served him when he was the longest shot is now being played like a sort of political Tourette’s. The press continually mangles the context of what he says, amping up his words in their own cynical version of “Twist and Shout.” We’ve got no adults with him on the road – no seasoned political people – and so, naturally, he’s gaffing his way across Iowa. The young Dean staffers – all energy and idealism – have no idea what’s about to happen. For most of them, this is their first presidential and they don’t realize that the only thing longer than the hours are the odds of winning. Some of them – the really crazy ones – have caught the bug and might work a second presidential. There could even be the odd addict or death-wisher among them who might someday forget how hard this was and work a third.
This is my seventh.
And I can see it coming apart. I can see that we’ve gone to the lead too soon, that the other candidates are bearing down on us. I know what hell there is to pay when an insurgent catches the mainstream party leaders off guard. I can practically hear the guns swinging around, the sights settling on our back. I’ve worked too many caucuses in Iowa to not immediately recognize the signs of this thing: the squabbling, the spending, the negative ads, the constant press scrutiny. I can see all of it beginning to take its toll.
Most of all, I can see that we just weren’t ready. Not for this.
Before Howard Dean launched his presidential campaign, he made the dubious decision to seal many of his records as governor of Vermont for a decade – saying that he didn’t want “anything embarrassing appearing in the papers at a critical time in any future endeavor.” Well, it’s a critical time now, and his decision has come back to bite us in the ass, this candidate who promised a new, open style of democracy hiding more than eleven years’ worth of memos and files from the only major office he’s ever held.
So here we are, in early December 2003, and the senior staff has decided to meet with the governor to plead our case for releasing the records. About fifteen of us have gathered in the long conference room on the third floor of a stale office building in South Burlington, Vermont – where this rebel campaign had its unlikely rise. We explain that everything is about to hit critical mass, and that we are under a new kind of pressure here. He is now the frontrunner – everything he does and says will attract new scrutiny – and he can’t say out of one side of his mouth that he wants to clean up politics, while out of the other side say that his own records are off-limits for a frickin’ decade.
We tell him that it’s starting to show up in the polls. We can survive a lot of things, but we can’t survive having people see him as just another double-talking politician. The Dean for America campaign is the antithesis of that . . . a grassroots, reform candidacy breaking all the old rules and making people believe in politics again.
“You’ve got to release the records, Governor.”
His eyes are set, and his open face is pulled back defensively into that tree-trunk neck. “But there’s nothing in there.”
“If there’s nothing in there, then we should release them.”
“But there’s nothing in there.”
“That’s why we have to release them.”
“But why should we release them when there’s nothing in there?”
We go around in circles like this until Governor Dean – whose running mate could have been stubbornness – ends the debate by saying he’s done talking about it. “I would rather withdraw from the race than release those records.”
We’re all quiet. The frontrunner in the 2003 Democratic presidential campaign is threatening to quit, while he still has the lead. The meeting ends, Governor Dean nods in my direction and chokes out the words, “Follow me, Joe.”
I try to keep up, but he’s striding down the hallway toward my office, and I’m straggling fifteen feet behind him, reassuring staffers as I move down the hall.
My office is in the corner of the third floor, a long narrow gash of a room – a crash site of paper, CD cases, and empty Diet Pepsi cans.
Howard Dean is standing against the wall, his back to me. He’s shaking.
“You made this too easy,” he manages to say.
“What?” I ask.
“This. I never thought it would go this far. I was going to raise my profile, raise health care as an issue, shake up the Democratic Party. Help change the country. But I never thought this would happen. Don’t you understand?” He turns and faces me. “I never thought I could actually win. I wanted to . . . but I never really thought it could happen.”1
SURGE OF POWER
I’ve spent my life moving from one election to the next, living out of suitcases, motel rooms and rental cars, sleeping on couches, knocking on doors, leaf leting neighborhoods, writing ads and speeches and snappy debate comebacks trying to get a succession of Democrats elected to every office you can imagine – from city attorneys to U.S. senators, from mayors to several unsuccessful runs at electing the president of the United States.
In twenty-eight years, I would guess that I worked on more than a hundred campaigns. I won more than my share, some that I shouldn’t have, and lost some that, to this day, still break my heart. I nearly killed myself for some of these people, a few of whom seemed born to lead, some of whom I would’ve had trouble punching the hole for myself.
Occasionally, I worked for a candidate who tapped into the original well of idealism that first got me into politics – an eleven-year-old boy watching on TV as Bobby Kennedy walked off the stage toward his assassination, a gauntlet of hands, black and brown and white, reaching
out to him, for more than just his plan to erase poverty or to end the Vietnam War. Hands that seemed to reach out for some kind of deliverance.
Like a lot of sick twists who practice politics as a career, before 2003, elections for me were always about the candidate. I would do anything for the candidate. I would work to the point of exhaustion. I would use every tool at my disposal. I would write television attack ads that made the opponent look like a polluting, Medicare-hating, bribe-taking sociopath who spooned every night with fat-cat businessmen and convicted murderers. I would do anything for the people I was trying to elect. My loyalty to them was everything.
And then this thing happened.
When Howard Dean’s bid for the presidency finally did its crash-and-burn (not in an Iowa corn field, as it turned out, but onstage in an Iowa ballroom), a cynical, middle-aged campaign consultant who thought he’d seen it all, who thought he knew it all, an old pro who’d made it his life’s work to win elections at all costs, learned the most profound and unexpected lesson of his life.
This time, it wasn’t about the candidate at all. It was about the people. This was never about him. It was about them.
An amazing thing happened in the presidential contest of 2004: For the first time in my life, maybe the first time in history, a candidate lost but his campaign won.
When Governor Dean stood in my office and admitted that even he hadn’t expected to be thrust into the lead for the Democratic presidential nomination, he was saying what I’d known for months. That this was bigger than him. Certainly bigger than me. Bigger than the Democratic Party. Bigger even than determining who ran against George W. Bush in the general election.
This was nothing less than the first shot in America’s second revolution, nothing less than the people taking the first step to reclaiming a system that had long ago forgotten they existed. This was democracy bubbling to the surface, f looding the landscape, and raising all of us – an obscure Northeastern governor, his inexperienced supporters, and a handful of old political warhorses – along with it.
The Dean for America campaign arrived at just the right moment – a pivotal point in our political history, when forty years of a corrupt system had reduced politics to its basest elements – the race to raise money from one-quarter of one percent of the wealthiest Americans and corporate donors in exchange for dictating the policy of the country. Then, the side with the most money simply bought the most television ads to manipulate the most people – while instant polling, focus groups, and message testing ref ined the struggle to a few swing voters in a few key districts in a few key states, blurring any significant differences between the monolithic parties and destroying honest debate about issues like health care and the war in Iraq. Until every candidate sounded exactly the same, and a member of either party could proudly stand up and proclaim that his party had passed a Patients’ Bill of Rights – an utterly meaningless bill that, incidentally, didn’t provide health care for one single American.
If there is a playbook for this type of checkbook, top-down, cynical politics and governing, it was being written by George W. Bush’s administration. Simply tell the voters that you’re going to be compassionate, and then turn over the keys to the rich guys who wrote the checks. Hand the economy to the special interests. Turn the environment over to the oil companies. Wage war for the people who wrote the checks.
Against this backdrop of transactional politics, campaigns have become more vicious, more media savvy, more technologically advanced, more expensive and intensive, longer, bigger, and stronger in every way except one.
Somewhere along the line, they lost the voters.
As television transformed political campaigns, people began viewing elections as no different than any other product someone was trying to sell them – a new Chrysler, a new bacon-Monterey cheeseburger, a strapless pair of shoes. So they channel surfed. They tuned out. When the networks call elections before voters have even been to the polls, when they turn our political system into just another TV show (and not a very good one at that, something between the World Wrestling Federation and The Real World) all they do is encourage people to turn the channel.
So that’s what we did. We turned the channel.
From that seminal moment when I watched Robert Kennedy declare victory and then turn and walk toward his death in 1968, until now, the involvement of Americans in all levels of politics has fallen precipitously. I’m not talking just about the decline in the number of voters in the presidential election (which fell from 62.8 percent in 1960 to below 50 percent in recent years). The percentage of people who worked for a political party also plummeted, by about 42 percent in the past 30 years. The number who served on a committee for some local organization fell by 39 percent. Thirty-five percent fewer attended public meetings. Thirty-four percent fewer attended a political rally or speech.2
Across the board, Americans – made hopeless by a hope-killing process – have been leaving politics in droves.
I should know. I was one of them.
While I kept working in politics throughout the 1990s – mostly on TV ads for Senate and House candidates – I eased away from managing
campaigns and began pursuing my other passion, technology. I worked for several computer and Internet companies, innovative, risk-taking twenty-first century businesses that threw away the old templates and began looking for new ways to do things.
Being a political junkie at heart, by the late 1990s I began daydreaming about a campaign that would be run the way these revolutionary companies were being run – not from the top down, with a $200 million TV ad budget and a detached board of directors, but from below: A campaign run by the people.
And that’s when Howard Dean came along, an underdog so far out of the race we had no choice but to test this strategy, blending my two passions, bringing to the political world the things I’d learned in the technological world, taking democracy to the last place where democracy stood a chance.
I’d be lying if I said that when I made the f irst inquiry about using an obscure web site called MeetUp.com to link Howard Dean supporters together from around the country, that I knew in a year we’d have 600,000 people passionately committed to our cause. That these people would raise up the one candidate who actually seemed to have convictions, who rejected the old politics, who took the people seriously by engaging them and empowering them in the one place where they could meet him, the one place where the ubiquitous presence of television couldn’t distort his messageâ€”on Internet bulletin boards and web sites, chat rooms and web logs.
Certainly, I had known that politics would eventually come to this point, just like every other aspect of our society will eventually come to this point. I’d seen for years that the ingredients were there for overthrowing a decaying political system and replacing it with something responsive and revolutionary.
But I’d also be lying if I said that Howard Dean was the only person in my office that day stunned by the sudden power surge of Americans banding together to take back a system that had failed them miserably.
A DOT-COM MIRACLE
Everyone knows by now how the Dean campaign ended, in a looped tape of seemingly misplaced, eleventh-hour enthusiasm (“And Oklahoma! And
Arizona! And North Dakota!”). Challenged by something they didn’t create, couldn’t control, and never understood, the networks and news media flexed their atrophying muscles and repeated that clip over and over, as if it were Ronald Reagan being shot, the space shuttle Challenger exploding, John Kennedy’s Lincoln making its sad way along the Dallas streets in 1963, or that heat-seeking missile in Gulf War I, zigging through the dark and hitting its target over and over again, sometimes in slow motion.
It was hard to miss the glee with which the old media ran that clip.3
In the days and weeks that followed the end of the Dean campaign, the judgments against the governor and his army of followers were harsh.
His brief burst of momentum had been a fluke. A blip. Most of all, it had been just another Internet fad, a dot-com crash – long on capital, short on substance.
This is simply wrong. It was, in fact, a dot-com miracle.
In fact, it was a stunning victory that will resonate long after the election of 2004 is forgotten.
In fact, it was the opening salvo in a revolution, the sound of hundreds of thousands of Americans turning off their televisions and embracing the only form of technology that has allowed them to be involved again, to gain control of a process that alienated them decades ago. In the coming weeks and months and years, these hundreds of thousands will be followed by millions, and this revolution will not be satisfied with overthrowing a corrupt and unresponsive political system. It won’t stop at remaking politics. And it won’t pay attention to national borders.
In fact, if every business and civic leader in every sector of the economy and in every segment of society doesn’t think that in the next decade they’re in for Howard Dean-style surprises from the people they’ve been treating with total condescension, they haven’t been paying attention. Every business that spends $20 million on television advertising and just $20,000 to post a static web site that is updated once a month had better watch their backs. Every institution that doesn’t understand that the technology is finally here to allow people to reject what they’re being given and demand what they want had better start paying attention.
The revolution comes for you next.
When the Dean campaign ended and I sat down to write this book, several people asked if it would be a standard campaign memoir, a tell-all with all the juicy behind-the-scenes details about what went right and went wrong during Howard Dean’s dramatic rise and sudden fall.
These people still don’t get it.
The truth of this campaign, the “tell all,” the juicy behind-the-scenes details are these: a woman who sold her bike for democracy and inspired hundreds, maybe thousands of people to do the same; a man who raised $400,000 in one week by himself by doing nothing more than sending out an e-mail; an eighty-nine-year-old man who said that he thought he was done living until the Dean campaign re-engaged his life with meaning and civic purpose.
Yes, this book is the story of a long-shot presidential campaign. But it’s far more than that.
For me, it’s the story of a person who spends his life reconciling two vastly different worlds – politics and technology – and wakes up one morning to find himself standing at the place where they’re about to converge, to crash together and begin reversing fifty years of political cynicism in one glorious explosion of civic re-engagement.
It’s the story of dozens of committed people who waged a political campaign unlike any in history. It’s about the things that we did right, the mistakes we made, and the lessons we learned that can be applied to every election, every product, every issue in America. It’s about the man we rallied behind, a politician who had the courage to stand up and question the country’s path when all the others seemed to want nothing more than to hide.
But most of all it’s the story of people standing up and making themselves heard. It’s the story of how to engage those Americans in a real dialogue, how to reach them where they live, how to stop selling to them and start listening to them, how to make better use of the most revolutionary idea to come along since the f irst man learned to light a fire.
No, I’m not talking about the Internet. Or computers. Or telecommunications.
I’m talking about democracy.
1Slightly different versions of this story have appeared in various media reports quoting Howard
as saying he didn’t want to be president. It’s worth noting that only Howard Dean and I were in
the room that day.
2Robert D. Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (New
York: Simon & Schuster, 2000).
3Of course, the Internet played a big part in spreading the “I Have a Scream” speech too, proving
in the most perverse way just how powerful the medium had become.