Dean claims he lit match for Obama

For all his efforts helping President Obama get elected, Howard Dean remains an outsider in the Democratic Party and is prepared to hold his party leader accountable when they disagree.

Dean credits his own failed 2004 presidential campaign, which focused on grassroots organization and opposition to the Bush administration, with “lighting the match” that later fueled Barack Obama’s successful White House bid. Dean also fortified Obama’s run and helped his party expand its congressional majorities while leading the Democratic National Committee (DNC).

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Yet three months after stepping down as DNC chairman, Dean is without a job in the administration and has no official role with the party and no immediate plans to run for elected office.

Instead, he’s taken a job as a consultant for a Washington law and lobbying firm a few blocks from the White House, and is resigned to shaping public policy in much the same way he ran for president — by tapping into the energy and frustration that exists outside of Washington.

He’s serving as the liberal voice on CNBC, giving lectures to college students and liberal parties overseas and pushing for healthcare policy changes through the grassroots group he founded, Democracy for America, and for early education with a new program for grade-school students in New York City.

During an interview with The Hill, Dean embraced being called a “consummate outsider,” at one point laughing at the title and asking that it be put on his business cards.

“I like that phrase,” he said, before adding: “It’s not bad. I have a much better view of Washington than when I started the [DNC] chairmanship.”

Speaking his mind and standing firm in his beliefs is what transformed Dean from an obscure governor from one of the nation’s smallest states into a serious presidential contender and party leader.

At the heart of Dean’s 2004 campaign was a willingness to use the Internet to get new, particularly younger, voters involved — a strategy Obama capitalized on to win in 2008.

“Well, the timing was off in terms of winning the presidency, but the timing clearly wasn’t off in terms of in kind of lighting the match,” Dean said. “I mean, there are those who would argue, you always have to have a campaign like mine before you have a campaign like Barack Obama’s.”

Unlike Obama, Dean fell short. Dean said he erred by not listening to advice that former President Bill Clinton gave him when he emerged as the leading contender for the Democratic presidential nomination in late 2003. Clinton, Dean said, counseled him to start acting like the president, “because people won’t vote for you, they’ll vote for you only if they see you as the president.”

“That’s a turn I never made,” Dean said. “We actually had a debate about it in the campaign.

There were those who thought that if I were to become more presidential, I’d lose my core base and people who really wanted change ... But the big decision was made by me, which was not to change my style. That was a big mistake.”

Dean believes that ignoring Clinton’s advice and failing to run a more disciplined campaign were bigger factors than his infamous “scream” speech after his third-place finish in the Iowa caucuses. When asked whether that speech will forever dog him, he said, “I don’t care.

“It had nothing at all to do with my losing the presidency,” he said. “I’d already lost, if you’re supposed to come in first and you come in third.”

Even throughout his DNC tenure, he had detractors. His decision to spend money in all 50 states was ridiculed as impractical by other party leaders and especially by now-White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel.

But Dean said that he had confidence his strategy would work all along.

“I never experience vindication because I never think I’m wrong,” he said when asked how he feels toward critics. “And I am wrong sometimes; I clearly am. But I always believe so strongly in what I’m doing that it never occurs to me that I’m wrong,” he added.

Dean’s relationship with Emanuel appears to be on the mend; the former adversaries had lunch after Obama’s inauguration.

The next step for Dean, 60, is unclear. He says he wants to push for healthcare reform — he had expressed interest in being secretary of Health and Human Services — and he hasn’t closed the door on running for office again.

“I never had a life plan. I certainly never intended to be governor of Vermont,” said Dean, who became governor in 1991 when the sitting governor died in office.

“I don’t know how it’s going to unfold. I do know what I care about. I care deeply about the issues that we talked about. And I’m going to work on those issues, regardless of whether I’m inside or outside an administration or political office.”

His backers in Congress said they’d like to see him stay on the stage.

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But both of Vermont’s senators, Patrick Leahy (D) and Bernie Sanders (I), plan to be in the Senate for years.

Donna Brazile, one of the early defenders of Dean’s DNC strategy, said Dean is someone who drove the national debate and who oversaw the DNC through two successful election cycles.

“Dean should be given credit for helping to guide Democrats out of the political wilderness,” she said.

Another Dean ally, Rep. Peter Welch (D), who succeeded Sanders in the House in 2006, said that Dean would be good in any office he held.

“He’s somebody who understands the logistics” of healthcare, Welch said. “What I do know is that Howard Dean is effective as a team player and as a leader.”

Wherever Dean ends up, he’s going to retain his independence, even with Democrats in power.

He praised the healthcare plan that Obama proposed during his campaign, but said that “it’s not worth anything” if it doesn’t include a public insurance plan.

Dean said that he’s inclined to take a different approach from the president — he’s more confrontational, while Obama is from the “let’s-work-all-together generation.” But one thing is certain: Dean will tell Obama when he thinks he’s wrong, just like he did with President Bush.
“I’m less likely to pick up a flamethrower,” he said. “But you know, I think there are things that have to be done.”

Click here for more excerpts from Dean's interview.