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After former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean’s protest-fueled primary campaign crashed, he reconstituted his effort as Democracy for America. Mobilizing its Internet-coordinated grassroots base, Democracy for America will work for progressive candidates and long-term change in the Democratic Party. In These Times recently talked to Dean about the presidential race and his own work.
There’s a hardcore anti-Bush sentiment, but at this point not a good deal of enthusiasm about Kerry as the candidate. Are there ways in which you think he could overcome that?
My view of all of Democratic politics is that we’ve been making a mistake. The Republicans figured it out before we did. We’ve got to energize the base voters and get them enthusiastic. The swing voters will come your way because they’ll be swept up in the enthusiasm. We can make big steps towards change by electing John Kerry, because we’ll have a much better Supreme Court, we’ll have a real environmental policy, we’ll have reasonable fiscal policy. So the case that I’d make to progressive voters is that there really is a big difference between John Kerry and George Bush.
From what you know now, especially with the prison abuse case and the documents about torture that were drafted by the administration, do you think there are acts for which senior officials might be indictable or impeachable?
I think for the Justice Department to sanction torture is pretty disgraceful. These people are looking more and more far out and more and more extreme right as we go along. [Attorney General John] Ashcroft is essentially throwing the Constitution out the window. And I actually believe the reason for the torture was mostly because of this ideological obsession with privatization. We’ve got a private mercenary army over there. That’s crazy.
The administration’s behaving in a bizarre way — hiring mercenary armies, sanctioning torture, secret documents, having the vice president try to influence the contracts, then claim that he didn’t know anything about it but his chief of staff had the OK. This does not pass the believability test. These people are basically very similar to Nixon’s administration. They believe that they’re above the law and whatever means they choose are justified by the ends.
Do you think the upturn in the economy undercuts the jobs issue for Kerry?
No, not at all. The people who read the Wall Street Journal think the economy is getting better, and it probably is because their portfolios are getting better. The people who work in factories, or used to work in factories, or don’t have health insurance, they don’t think the economy is getting better. And that situation’s not going to be fixed as long as you run a half-trillion-dollar deficit. Most of the voters do not make $200,000 a year. Therefore, they didn’t see much of the president’s tax cut. In fact, what they saw was property tax increases and healthcare insurance increases, because the president cut services in order to help pay for his tax cuts to his friends.
Do you have any specific things in mind to do yourself in the campaign?
This battle does not end on November 2, even if we win. We’ve got to reconstitute the Democratic Party. We haven’t paid attention to small donors. We haven’t paid attention to grassroots activists. We need to get people enthusiastic, and that has to be done with the same kind of discipline that the right wing used to take over the Supreme Court, the Congress and the presidency.
What do you see Democracy for America doing?
What we do is mainly grassroots intensive support for candidates. And the other thing we do that most people don’t do in the Democratic Party is we work in areas where we don’t have any party organization left. I’m going to be in Mississippi and Texas, because if we’re not willing to spread progressive messages elsewhere, nobody’s ever going to change their mind, because they’re never going to hear our message.
I would like to find a way after the election not to lay off the 4,000 grassroots activists that we are going to be putting in the field in Ohio, but to be ready to keep them on so we can start pushing issues like health insurance. Another thing is building constituencies and issues-based organizations, so when the next election cycle comes along you don’t have to retrain a whole grassroots corps to go out and sell your message. This needs to be a permanent campaign.
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David Moberg, a senior editor of In These Times, has been on the staff of the magazine since it began publishing in 1976. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He has received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy.