After months as the Democrats’ 2004 presidential frontrunner—slamming President George W. Bush as “bullheaded,” “petulant,” and “reckless”—Doctor Howard Dean crashed in Iowa after letting too much excitement slip through his lips. To think that a Wilhelm-esque scream was once enough to kill a candidate’s campaign is now as ludicrous as it is nostalgic. The six-term governor coped with his loss in the primaries by transforming his presidential campaign into the progressive political action committee Democracy for America in 2004. There’s a correlation between Dean 2004 and the subsequent risings of Barack Obama and Bernie Sanders. Under Dean’s chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee between 2005 and 2009, the Democrats took back control of the Congress, the Senate and the White House. Dean’s 50 State Strategy looked correct with Obama winning Indiana and North Carolina in 2008. With Dems now competitive in deep-red districts like Kansas’s 4th, that may be the case again.
As the race for 2018 begins, with heavy focus already on district elections like Georgia’s Sixth, where 30-year-old Democat Jon Ossoff is close to winning a historically red House seat, Playboy thought it a good time to check in with Dean, whose success as DNC chair will need to be replicated under Tom Perez and Keith Ellison if Democrats hope to make gains next year. Dean has been mum on a potential return to politics and he endorsed Hillary Clinton in 2014, well before she announced her candidacy for president. Instead, Dean does work for a multinational law firm, Dentons, while keeping both an eye on the news and arm’s length from the game itself. “I don’t lobby,” he tells Playboy. “I don’t work for clients I don’t particularly like, I don’t do billable hours. I do it my way. I have no intention of going to K Street.” In a wide-ranging conversation, Dean tackles President Donald Trump’s appeal, the modern progressive movement, healthcare and the future of the two-party system.
Are the Democrats going to retake the house in 2018?
I believe we can re-take the House. It’s going to be very close in the Sixth District in Georgia, but that’s a sign that we can start winning districts where there’s been a 20-point margin in the past.
I think the majority of Americans were not for Donald Trump and they’re appalled by his behavior. There are a lot of decent Americans who’ve been voting Republican for financial reasons. I think they now see that the Republican Party doesn’t seem to be the place where decent values are, because of the indecency of the Trump administration and most of the people surrounding him. That’s one of the reasons we have a shot in the Georgia Sixth District, a historically Republican district.
How should Trump opponents reevaluate their strategies going into 2018?
I think there’ are two types of Trump voters, basically. There were those who were consumed by rage and hate and they weren’t going to vote for Hillary Clinton no matter what. Then, there were those who wanted a real change and thought Trump was flawed, but that he could accomplish this. Hillary was never going to get them either. I see that second group as legitimate voters. The Electoral College is such that Trump won.
Obviously, the country is not going to work when you have people like Paul Ryan, who don’t understand health insurance, making health policies. Democrats, however, shan’t win just by knocking Trump all over the place and telling everybody how awful the Republicans are. They know that already. We have to win by giving a better vision. And it can’t be bupkis. It can’t be pabulum and nothing; it has to be substantive and believable.
Trump’s presidency is such a disaster because he was put in office because of anger.
If you appeal to the worst in people, you generally end up with a nightmare. If you appeal to anger, greed and fear, you’re not going to end up with a great country if you take over. If you appeal to hope and aspiration and decency, you will have the kind of country that we all want. I think that’s why Joe Biden is so well-loved. Although he’s said a few things that would’ve been better if he hadn’t, Obama himself recognized there’s a goodness about Joe.
Religious scholar Reza Aslan recently told me, “Trump represents basically every grotesquery of the human experience.” Yet, the president won 81 percent of white evangelical voters. When you ran against Bush, you had some strong stump lines on the influence of fundamentalist Christians in America. Their leaders—Jerry Falwell Jr, Rick Santorum and Mike Pence—remain hardcore Trumpkins despite Trump’s predatory behavior.
They’re not morally superior. I feel bad for the real Christians. There are some evangelicals that are real Christians who follow the teachings of Jesus, but most of the ones you hear from don’t.
How long do you give Vladimir Putin?
I don’t know, I’m not his doctor. The rate of people being poisoned over there, who knows, eventually it’ll get around to him.
Democracy For America, the political action committee you founded in 2004, has experienced a lot of progressive success. Do progressives need to be more aggressive?
No, I think the progressives are being very aggressive and doing it in just the right way. I think groups like Indivisible, Flippable and more, alongside events such as the Women’s March, the airport marches–all those things really created an organizational determination. It’s more important to be determined than it is to be angry. Anger is the first stage, but now you’ve got to be determined, because anger’s not enough. That’s why the Trump presidency is such a disaster. He’s a candidate that was put in office because of anger. That is almost never going to work. We have to put our next candidate in office because of hope: that was the genius of Barack Obama and Bill Clinton.
Democracy For America does a good job recruiting progressives and a tremendous job doing something that a lot of people don’t do, which is train both candidates and staff how to run campaigns. They’re tough about it; they’ll go to some progressive’s campaign and if they don’t know what they’re doing or won’t take any direction, they don’t bother to support them because they know they can’t win. DFA has actually moved to the left of where I am [laughs], but so what? They’re effective.
How do progressives challenge the misleading but powerful narratives certain outlets, let’s say Fox News, put out?
Actually, I don’t see Fox as terribly powerful at all. They have a very small audience compared to the large size of the American electorate. People who do things like read Breitbart and watch Fox are basically aggrieved people. You couldn’t present them with a set of facts that they would believe if it didn’t fit within their aggrieved worldview. What Fox and Breitbart and all those people do is appeal to the lowest common denominator, the fears and the anger. It’s an effective campaign mechanism. I don’t see Fox or Breitbart as being terribly powerful, but I do see them as dangerous, because I think they play into the worst of human kind.
What do you think Obama’s role in opposition to Trumpism should be?
That’s a question you’d need to ask Obama. A barometer of mine for Obama is my 88-year-old mother. She switched from being a moderate Republican to a Democrat when I ran so she could vote for me. She loves Barack Obama because “He’s so dignified”. That may sounds old lady-ish, but it’s smart. Having dignity befits the office, and Obama was dignified. Whatever you think of his positions, he knew what the presidency was about. I don’t think Trump has the most remote idea.
You were outspoken against the war in Iraq when a majority of Americans supported it. Is there an issue opposed by a minority Democrats should rally around?
I came out against the Iraq war because I looked under the hood. I lived through President Lyndon B. Johnson and President Richard Nixon, when the government was lying. I paid attention to The Guardian and The Independent. The Brits seemed to publish things that we can’t publish over here from their intelligence agencies. Maybe it was being leaked? British intelligence, which is our closest intelligence relationship in the world, had come to the conclusion that not only did Iraq not have weapons of mass destruction, but that they also did not have an atomic program, which Dick Cheney had been hinting at. Cheney knew perfectly well, I’m sure, that they didn’t.
I figured, if you had to lie to the American people and get them to send their kids abroad and put them in danger, then you shouldn’t be over there. That’s why I came out against the Iraq war; the case wasn’t there, there was no evidence that it was going to be a good thing. And having lived through the Vietnam War, where 550,000 Americans died as the result of presidential malfeasance, it was a dereliction of duty. That’s what the Bush administration did. They cooked the books and sent a lot of people over to the Middle East into incredibly unstable circumstances, which it’s been ever since.
Recently, I read that General Mattis wants to commit a lot of troops to Yemen. I can’t believe that’s a good idea.
Obamacare doesn’t having a public option, which is a change you still support. Many have blamed Senator Joe Lieberman for that.
We had Joe Lieberman’s vote, but he changed it with two days to go, according to Chuck Schumer and Harry Reid, who I was in daily contact with at that time. Joe was a very complicated, angry person by that time. In fairness to him, he had a huge number of insurance companies in his state so one could argue that he was representing his insurance company constituents.
Speaker of the House Paul Ryan has said that kicking millions of people off healthcare would be “an act of mercy”.
If you don’t care what the facts are, you can’t run anything. You can’t run a business, you can’t run a family, you can’t run a church and you can’t run the country. These guys haven’t given a damn about the facts for about 20 years. They’ve made them up, and it’s finally caught up with them. Think of all the things they’ve made up these crazy names for. Think about what they’re going to do to the climate. Trump is already undoing the EPA. These guys are going to end up being the biggest enemy to the younger generation than any party in history because the number-one concern of young people of the first “Global Generation” is climate change. This is now the largest voting group in the country, when they vote. I think they will from now on. Republicans will be lucky to win an election for the next generation.
What’s your response to critics of current U.S. trade policies?
There is some truth to what critics say about what’s happening in certain states, for example, Ohio and Michigan. But for the most part, trade has been great for the United States. It’s created millions and millions of jobs here and lifted more than a billion people out of poverty. I think our fault is that those who are in favour of globalization—which is going to happen whether we like it or not—is that we didn’t figure out how to bring everybody along.
Xi Jinping is standing up for globalization while Putin, of course, doesn’t like it. But Putin is going to be a relic. He can do a tremendous amount of damage, but in the end, we’re going to be a globalized world—and we already are. Especially this new generation, which is why I call them the “First Globals”.
This conversation has been edited and condensed.
Alexander Bisley is a writer contributing to assorted publications, including The Guardian. He has discussed politics for Playboy with Colson Whitehead, Jonathan Lethem and Garry Kasparov. Follow him here.