John Kerry Needs to Start Playing to Dean Supporters

Posted February 9, 2004 at 2:21pm

The most amazing thing about the Grammy Awards this year is how well the old guard — Prince, George Clinton and the P-Funk orchestra of Parliament — mixed with the new guard —Beyonce, Black Eyed Peas, OutKast — without ripping each other apart for what they both represent in the evolution of modern music. [IMGCAP(1)]

Similarly, the so-called establishment or rock ’n’ roll culture of the Democratic Party must learn to respect and even embrace the new rhythms emanating from voters who wish to usher in a new era of American politics.

For the past year, Howard Dean, more than any other candidate, has stood alone in respecting and understanding the sounds of this new generation of political players. Although Dean is now out of sync with many voters participating in the early presidential caucuses and primaries, the tone he set in 2003 will continue to reverberate in 2004.

One year ago this month at the annual winter meeting of the Democratic National Committee, Dean stole the show and reawoke the long-sleeping Democratic Party. Dean, dressed in a plain blue business suit, walked up on the stage before 400-plus battle-tested but weary Democratic warriors and proclaimed that he represented “the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party.” He reminded Democrats that they could still fight and win.

At a time when most Democrats inside the Beltway were caving to the Bush administration on issue after issue ranging from the equity of the tax cuts to the war on terrorism, Dean launched his campaign by singing from a different hymn book. While Dean has hit a discordant note with political pundits, his campaign became a vehicle for Americans turned off by “me tooism.” Next week, Dean and his movement may have to face the music and leave the race. But Democrats must find a way to keep Dean’s movement alive to compete effectively against the Republican Party under the leadership of George W. Bush.

When Dean entered the room of Democrats last year, he was so behind in the polls that no one gave him a shot of even winning the nomination. But everyone there, including me, will never forget how he removed the blues of the 2000 presidential season and reminded Democrats that we won the last election. Dean gave Democrats hope that the party could take on Bush and not pay a price.

Now he will pay a price for having taken on just about everyone, including himself, in a quest to win the nomination. Unlike the supporters of other candidates who drop out and embrace the frontrunner, Dean’s supporters must be courted. They must be wooed.

Sen. John Kerry (Mass.) may well become the party’s nominee this July at the convention, which will be held in his hometown of Boston. However, if he truly wants to lead the Democratic Party in 2004 and beyond and beat Bush, he must learn how to stand for millions of our citizens living on the verge of poverty, joblessness and without health care.

Twenty years ago this year, I went to work for that good ol’ country preacher and civil rights icon, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, because no one inside the campaign of former Vice President Walter Mondale knew my name. After spending more than three years working to help make Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday a holiday, I was fired up about working for a candidate who represented the civil rights movement. Jackson ran during the height of the Reagan years, and to my knowledge, most people inside the Beltway said we were a nuisance.

The truth was then as it is now — the party is out of step with its values. It took four years for Jackson to convince the Democratic Party that all disenfranchised and working people on the outside did not want the party to take their voices and anger for granted. We wanted a seat at the table when decisions were made on the party’s public policy positions and the people who would serve as its spokesmen and women. Thanks to Jackson and his 1984 and 1988 campaigns, African-Americans are now voting their interest and not by the color of their skin. The door’s open. The party rules have changed and the party recommitted itself to adhering to its core principles of fairness and opportunity for all citizens.

Dean supporters, like Jackson supporters, want someone to listen to their voices and respect their talent. If Kerry is to succeed, he must quickly embrace their spirit — if not their souls.

All Democrats should be excited about this new primary season. We have had some terrific candidates who have all, in their own ways, contributed to a record-breaking year in grassroots turnout. All of them brought something almost spiritual to the Democratic primary season. In 2004, Democrats must prepare themselves to proudly work for and support John Kerry.

But Kerry cannot stand alone as our nominee. He must lead the fans of Braun, Dean, Clark, Edwards, Gephardt, Graham, Kucinich, Lieberman and Sharpton.

And after next Tuesday, he’d better get ready to boogie with followers of the Dean movement, who will be standing by and watching how the party acts after Dean is defeated. Kerry should start tuning into these fans after the votes come in tonight.

Donna L. Brazile, the campaign manager for Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore in 2000, runs her own grassroots political consulting firm.