A Model for Success in Dean's GOP Mirror Image?

Howard Dean, Haley Barbour

Howard Dean, left, addresses a Democratic National Committee meeting Feb. 12, 2005; Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, in a campaign photo. Reuters, Barbour For Governor hide caption

itoggle caption Reuters, Barbour For Governor

Howard Dean has announced that his first official trip as chairman of the Democratic National Committee will be to Mississippi. That makes a lot of sense, and for more reasons than one.

First off, it signals that Dean, the former governor of Vermont and famously volatile presidential candidate, understands his party must contest the red states as well as the blue.

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Now if Dean is looking for a model of success in his current job, he ought to pay a call on Mississippi's current governor, Haley Barbour, still best known in Washington for his rollicking, history-making performance as Republican National Committee chairman a decade ago.

When Barbour took the GOP job in 1993, Republicans were at their lowest ebb in 15 years. They had just lost the presidency to Bill Clinton, who broke "the Republican lock" on the Electoral College. His "New Democrat" message had carried the suburbs as well as the cities and seemed eminently transferable to other Democrats at all levels.

The GOP's dreams of a national realignment, so palpable in the 1980s, seemed to be vanishing. On Capitol Hill, the party was mired in minority status in both the House and Senate — holding fewer seats in each chamber than Democrats hold today.

Yet after just two years with Barbour at the helm, the Republicans had not only vaulted to majority status in both chambers of Congress, they had gained ground dramatically in state legislatures and local offices as well.

Barbour, then a 45-year-old attorney who had worked for presidential candidates and run for the U.S. Senate, took over with a full head of steam. Swiftly, he turned the intraparty anger to productive uses. He emphasized a few core principles of Republicanism like lower taxes and smaller government, softening the party's own schisms. Most importantly, in his countless media appearances he refocused his activists on the Democrats — and most particularly on Clinton.

"Frankly, Clinton is making it easy," Barbour told Campaigns & Elections Magazine in the spring of 1993.

And indeed, Clinton's bold but maladroit first months in office greatly assisted Barbour in restoring Republican confidence. The new president's debut was spoiled by snafus in Cabinet appointments. He raised taxes in his first budget. He prioritized the issue of gays in the armed forces, eventually alienating both military traditionalists and gay activists over the issue.

In a strategic miscalculation, Clinton decided to press for a new health care system on a grand scale, putting off an overhaul of the welfare system that would have had more bipartisan support. Still more of his political capital went into tough fights over guns and trade protections.

At every misstep, Barbour was waiting to pounce. The folksy, moon-faced fellow from Yazoo City, Miss., seemed to be on every TV channel at once, saying Clinton was reminding voters of why they liked the GOP. Republicans that year captured a Senate seat in Texas, governorships in Virginia and New Jersey and even the mayor's offices of New York and Los Angeles.

"Rising tide," Barbour chanted to all who would listen, "rising tide."

Dean and his Democrats will need something of this same √©lan — as well as some of Barbour's luck — to overcome George W. Bush's advantages in the country right now. With big majorities in Congress and strong appeal in the nation's fastest growing communities, the president sees himself poised to make history on a grand scale — much as Clinton did a dozen years ago.

Dean already shares Barbour's legendary energy and drive. He is already far better known than Barbour was at first, although much of his fame takes the form of notoriety for his scream after the Iowa caucuses a year ago. If reruns of that disaster become less common on TV, it will mean that Dean is starting to connect with audiences in his new role and in a new way.

We are also entering a phase of the Bush presidency that will churn up issues and controversies that could weaken his hold on the center. These might include Social Security, budget cuts, education and health care, just to name a few issues on which Dean can rely on near-total Democratic support.

It is interesting to note that in his first speech as chairman, Dean did not strike out at the president on the issues of Iraq or abortion rights. Instead, he seemed willing to set both issues aside for the moment, mindful of the divisions they cause among Democrats and the problems those divisions could pose along the party's comeback trail.

This is reminiscent of Barbour's own "big tent" approach in 1993, when he de-emphasized abortion as an issue and tried to keep the party's economic and social conservatives talking to each other in a civil tone.

Sure, there are lots of past Democratic chairmen whom Dean could emulate. There was Paul Kirk, the soft-spoken Massachusetts lawyer who helped rebuild the party after it lost 49 states to Ronald Reagan in 1984. And there was Ron Brown, the New Yorker who came along in 1989 as the first African-American chairman of either major party. Brown helped the Democrats sweep the marquee races that year and aided Bill Clinton's White House win in 1992.

But Barbour remains the exemplar of a turnaround chairman, mostly because the particular predicament he faced in 1993 most closely parallels what Dean faces today.

While Dean is in Jackson next month, the two really ought to get together.

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