Howard Dean Peers Into The Enthusiasm Gap

An NPR poll out this week showed that Democrats may be closing the gap in a number of Congressional races across the country, but most polls still show an enthusiasm gap. Republicans seem more committed to voting than many Democrats. Host Scott Simon talks with Howard Dean, former Vermont governor and Democratic National Committee chairman, about the Democrats' prospects in the November midterm elections.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Howard Dean joins us now. Of course, he's the former governor of Vermont and former chairman of the Democratic National Committee. He joins us on the phone from San Francisco.

Governor, thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. HOWARD DEAN (Former Democratic Governor, Vermont): Thanks for having me on.

SIMON: An NPR poll showed this week the Democrats may be closing the gap in a number of congressional races across the country. But most polls still show this enthusiasm gap, that Republicans seem a little bit more committed to voting than many Democrats. Do you accept that?

Mr. DEAN: Yes. I think that's right. I do think we're going to hold the House and the Senate. I'm one of a dwindling minority of people in Washington, but we always know that Washington often gets it wrong. Usually gets it wrong. Because I think at the end of the day the enthusiasm gap is dissipating.

The president's out there talking all the time about the differences between the parties. He's essentially done what he had to do, which is make this election a choice, not a referendum. If it's a choice, the Democrats are going to do OK.

SIMON: Governor Dean, what do you think about the Tea Party? Do you dismiss them or do you think there's some members and some enthusiasts of the Tea Party that can be brought to vote for your side?

Mr. DEAN: I certainly don't dismiss them. I don't think there are hardly any that are going to vote for our side. There have been a lot of polling on who's is the Tea Party and they're very far right. But I think the media's been a little unfair to them. I don't think they're all racists, though there's certainly some there.

I think a lot of them are just people who really want change in government and are exercising the constitutional organizational rights that they have together. And I think that's a good thing for the republic in the long run. I think it's going to cause the Republican Party as much trouble as it is going to help them in the long run too.

SIMON: Why haven't Democratic candidates been out on the hustings boasting about having passed President Obama's comprehensive health care reform?

Mr. DEAN: Well, I think actually you're seeing more and more people that are. The more people that begin to understand the bill, which is incredibly complex, the better I think the bill does.

On the other hand, the bill was very controversial. Bill Frist the other day said this is not a government takeover and nobody should say that it is. It's just not a government takeover. And I think the exaggerations and the hyperbole on the Republican side - you know, the voters are much smarter than politicians think they are. So there're some real things in this bill that are going to benefit us in the long run.

SIMON: But what about this election cycle? Is it hard to make the case for it now?

Mr. DEAN: I don't think we should be making the case right now. Elections are not the time to educate people. You win the election, then you educate people afterwards. But the president's doing what he should be doing. This is a bare-knuckle fight. It's between the far right, which has taken over the Republican Party, and the rest of us.

SIMON: Governor, if an electoral campaign isn't the time to try and educate the public, when is that time?

Mr. DEAN: It's while the bill's passing. And we didn't do so well, I don't think, in that one. But, you know, that's not part of this debate. That's part of another debate later on. Right now we've got to focus on the election.

SIMON: As chairman of the Democratic National Committee you hatched the 50-state strategy to make the party competitive all over the country, not writing off some states in which it was considered to be not competitive. And, of course, when you ran for president in 2004, you are credited with creating the Internet fundraising strategy that turned out to be so successful then, even more successful a couple of years ago. What's the next big idea do you think Democratic candidates should pay attention to?

Mr. DEAN: Well, you know, in fairness, our campaign didn't get the big idea. What we saw is ordinary people doing things that were far more sophisticated than what we were doing.

What the president's campaign - which I thought was probably the best campaign I've ever seen, in certainly the Democratic Party, and maybe ever - did was utilize things that were already there, that had already been invented: Facebook, MySpace. That wasn't there when we were campaigning, but the Obama people figured out how to use that to their advantage.

So whatever the new next thing is, it won't be invented by politicians. Almost nothing is invented by politicians, including me. It'll be invented by Americans who really want change. And that grassroots change will percolate upwards.

SIMON: Howard Dean, former governor of Vermont and chairman of the Democratic National Committee. Thanks so much.

Mr. DEAN: Thanks for having me on.

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