WASHINGTON – Howard Dean (search) is no longer screaming — he's scheming. The failed presidential candidate whose howling adieu to the Iowa caucuses helped seal his fate as a presidential candidate is plotting to overhaul the Democratic Party.
Borrowing ideas from President Bush's re-election campaign, Madison Avenue and his own Internet-driven White House bid, the Democratic National Committee chairman hopes to drag the party into the 21st century.
"What I'm trying to do is impose a system and run this place like a business," Dean said during an expansive interview in his office overlooking the Capitol.
That vision would be welcome news to party strategists who have complained that the DNC and its chairman of nine months lag behind Republicans in the political arts of messaging, targeting and organizing.
Some Democrats look back at Dean's rise-and-fall presidential campaign and wonder whether he has the management skills to carry out his plans or the ability to raise the money needed to pay for them.
Among Dean's goals are:
—Making Democrats the party of values, community and reform. Armed with extensive DNC polling, Dean is consulting with party leaders in Congress, mayors and governors to recast the public's image of Democrats with a unified message.
—Improving the party's "micro-targeting," the tactic of merging political information about voters with their consumer habits to figure out how to appeal to them.
—Building a 50-state grass-roots organization, using the same Internet and community-building tools that took Dean's presidential bid from obscurity to the front of the pack before Iowa.
This is where Dean and Bush have something in common. Both their campaigns benefited from networks of supporters promoting their candidacies person to person — friends telling friends, family and associates how to vote.
Bush plugged into existing organizations such as churches and hunting clubs. Dean nurtured his word-of-mouth networks through the Internet.
"I tapped into a craving for community in a society where we're becoming increasingly isolated from ourselves," he said.
A look at Dean's approach:
The DNC is getting outside help from private-sector consultants who specialize in creating and strengthening corporate images — or "brands."
"The last time this party was branded was Lyndon Johnson (search)," Dean said. "We'd been in power so long that we didn't think we needed to do it."
The lack of a message or brand makes it difficult for Democrats to capitalize on Bush's political slump and a series of GOP scandals. While the party is unified in accusing Republicans of creating a "culture of corruption," Democrats still need to give voters a compelling alternative to GOP rule.
A March 23, 2005, memo by DNC pollster Cornell Belcher found that most voters view politics through a values-laden prism rather than through the economic framing traditionally used by Democrats.
On a list of issue choices, "moral values" ranked in the middle of the pack and well ahead of abortion and gay rights. That suggested to Belcher that moral values has a broader meaning for voters than do social wedge issues.
"When voters think about moral values, they may in large part be thinking about the strength, leadership and moral fortitude of the candidates ... rather than the candidates' positions on specific social wedge issues," Belcher wrote.
Dean's take on the polling is that Democrats must recast the values-and-morals debate.
"It's morally wrong that so many children live in poverty. It's morally wrong that we have so many working poor people who can't pull themselves out of poverty," he said.
He also believes that voters are more interested in a candidate's intangible leadership qualities than his positions on lists of issues.
"We have to appeal to people's hearts and not just their heads," he said.
A Sept. 26 memo by Belcher found that people are placing a greater emphasis on community and sacrifice for the greater good. Dean tries to appeal to this sense of higher purpose when he says, "We can do better."
Bush's campaign revolutionized the use of micro-targeting to find potential GOP voters and tailor messages to their tastes.
Republicans also used niche media — including cable television, radio, the Internet and even internal video feeds at gyms — to push their message in 2004. In an era of iPods, text-messaging and blogs, Dean said new media will grow in influence as the power of traditional network TV advertising wanes.
Can the DNC catch up to Republicans by next year's elections? Or even the 2008 presidential race?
"No," Dean said, "but we can close the gap."
For this, too, Dean is getting help from the private sector.
The Bush campaign worked with consumer data-mining companies to place every battleground state voter into one of 20 to 30 "clusters" of like-minded people. The DNC's current system has eight to 16 clusters.
If the DNC can afford it, Dean's advisers hope to have 40 clusters in time for the next presidential race.
This personalization of politics harkens to pre-TV days when ward bosses and precinct captains, acting largely on instinct, tailored campaign messages to their friends and neighbors.
Dean is putting four or five DNC staff members in every state with orders to organize every precinct. One of the organizers' first mandates is to conduct four major events a year, one or two of which are mainly social.
Dean learned from his own campaign that it is critical to form relationships that turn into small communities and build into networks of people who feel part of a bottom-up operation with a purpose larger than themselves.
It's a long-term investment that runs counter to the political culture in Washington that, in the last years of the 20th century, has valued multimillion-dollar TV buys over grass-roots organizing.
"You've got to recruit people. You've got to ask them to do something," Dean said. "You have to treat them like a community."