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Howard Dean: Moderate, Progressive Democrats Need To Unify

Former Vermont Governor Howard Dean in a suit and tie
Richard Shotwell
Invision via Associated Press File
Former governor, presidential candidate and Democratic National Committee chair Howard Dean spoke to VPR about how Democrats performed in the 2020 election.

Most but not all votes around the country have now been counted. Democrat Joe Biden is the president-elect, and the makeup of next year's Congress is now taking shape.

Control of the Senate will hinge on two runoff races in Georgia in early January. And Democrats held on to their majority in the House of Representatives, but it narrowed as they unexpectedly lost some seats.

Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean is a former presidential candidate and former chair of the Democratic National Committee. He led a voter data effort with the DNC this year, too.

VPR’s Henry Epp spoke with former Gov. Howard Dean about the election results. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Henry Epp: So I want to talk first about these losses that the Democrats suffered in the House races. Of course, they held onto their majority, but Democrats were expected to gain seats, not lose them. What, in your view, went wrong?

Howard Dean: Actually, I'm not sure anything went wrong. I think this was attributed to, most smartly, to [President] Trump. Trump was really good at getting his base out. The problem with Trump's message is that he only talked to his base, but he really riled up his base and he got them out. I think there was a big Trump surge at the end that wasn't detected in the polls. That's a whole other subject: What do you do about polling? Because it's obviously a disaster.

More from VPR: 'Expecting Too Much From Polls': Comparing Election Predictions, Outcomes

Well, there's already been a lot of finger pointing between moderates and progressives, moderates saying that progressive plans like the Green New Deal or defunding the police hurt them. And progressives such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez saying that moderates didn't invest enough in online or door-to-door campaigning. Where do you fall on that divide?

I think, you know, moderates and progressives need each other, and they've got to get through this. Here is what the real problem is: Moderates have to talk differently than progressives do. This is about talk. It's not about programs.

Most people in this country, including a lot of Republicans, think we ought to have a health care system that serves everybody. Most people in this country believe that people in the lowest wage category ought to get more for the work they put out. So the problem is not so much ideology. The problem is how you express it. So I'm sympathetic with both.

The truth is, AOC couldn't possibly win in [Rep.] Conor Lamb’s district. But AOC, we need her. She has good ideas. She's incredibly articulate and very, very smart. But the language, you know, for example, defund the police is a good idea in the sense that it's a good idea not to defund, literally abolish police departments, but it's a good idea to take some of the funding from policing and invest it in de-escalation, mental health. And let's be frank about this, there are some cases where mental health people are called and they don't want to go to the scene without a police officer.

So this is really complicated stuff. You cannot reduce that kind of complicated approach, which needs to be done, to a simple slogan, like “defund the police.” And then you get, oh, “If you're not with us, underfund the police, then you're not with us at all.” That is suicidal, and that can't happen.

I think the problem is that moderates need to be less timid about policy, and progressives need to be more timid about slogans. Because you can't have a majority without both progressives and moderates. They're going to have to learn to live together, and they better learn how to work together.

"... moderates need to be less timid about policy, and progressives need to be more timid about slogans. Because you can't have a majority without both progressives and moderates." — Former Gov. Howard Dean

So fewer slogans. Is there an effective way, though, to campaign on more complex policy ideas like the ones you just outlined around policing … that takes some explanation, right, to voters? And do slogans help in some way in terms of putting these ideas out there?

Here's what slogans help a lot: They help you to polarize your base and get them out. That's what Trump does. So you just have to be careful. It is a good thing to have slogans that say what you're for in two words. It is a bad thing to have slogans that put off some portion of the electorate that you're going to need somewhere down the line. And that's the balance that you have to strike. And it's not easy.

You led an effort this cycle with the DNC to share voter data between campaigns, which was seen as pretty crucial move to keep up with similar efforts in the Republican Party. Given the outcomes last week, fewer Senate and House pickups than the Democrats hoped, was that effort successful?

It was incredibly successful, because we are so far behind the Republicans, as of about eight years ago. We're beginning to catch up. We were in, I think, 42 races or something like that. We started from nothing. The Koch brothers plunked down $250 million. We raised about $12 [million] and did pretty much what they do. We still have a ways to go, but it definitely made a difference.

Well, I want to talk about one idea that you had as DNC chair back in the mid-2000s, which was the 50-state strategy, investing in party infrastructure in every state and not just in competitive districts. How has that aged in the party since you left the DNC chairmanship?

It's aged very well, except that President Obama elected to set up his own organization outside the DNC. So the DNC kind of wilted for eight years and basically was a shadow of its former self. So that had to be all rebuilt. But the 50-state strategy [is] the only strategy is ever going to win.

And we had, you know, pretty good results. We didn't get as far as I wanted. But we won Georgia for the presidential race, that's pretty incredible. And we have a shot at two Senate seats, and I think it's a legitimate shot. We had a great race in Alaska this year. We had great races in places like Montana.

If you don't go to these places, why would anybody want to vote for you? And I actually figured this out when I was governor. You know, I'd go up to Essex County and Orleans County, and I'd know that they were probably not going to vote for me. It's a sign of respect to ask people for their votes. And if you don't show up, that's not very respectful.

More from VPR: 'We Have To Expand Our Outreach': Vt. Democratic Party Chair On Election Results

Even if that doesn't result in a win.

Absolutely. Because, look, otherwise, Rush Limbaugh gives the Democratic message if you don't show up. So, you know, the 50-state strategy is a no-brainer.

And I actually figured it out based on my own experience as governor, and also when I was running for president. We'd stop in Idaho on the way out – it used to drive my staff crazy – when we got going out to the coast, I'd make them stop someplace in middle America, and you'd get 10,000 people coming to the airport.

Now, I know we're not going to take Idaho anytime seriously. If you want those 10,000 Democrats to feel like they're part of something, instead of feeling like they ignored, then you better stop in Idaho. And Barack Obama used that strategy to beat Hillary Clinton in the primaries in 2008.

Finally, Gov. Dean, Joe Biden has been declared the president-elect, but President Trump has not yet conceded as we're recording this, and he's continued to try to sow doubt in the election outcome without evidence of his allegations of massive voter fraud. Are you concerned about whether Trump will give up power voluntarily?

I'm not concerned about that, because the Constitution says he's not president anymore after the 20th of January. So I don't think he wants to be frog-marched out of the White House by the Marines.

But I am concerned about – it just came to me today. This may not be an attempt to reverse the election, this may be buying them time to destroy documents. The real problem here is, I think, that's a national security danger. I think Trump is a national security risk when he gets out. He already blurting out stuff that he got from intel in front of reporters before, when he was president. Imagine what he's going to do when he's not president, when he has no constraints whatsoever.

So it's very worrisome to me. But I don't worry that we're not we're not going to have an exchange of power at noon on Jan. 20th. We will – he can do it the hard way or he can do it the easy way. But we will have an exchange of power.

Well, so, I mean, what do you think the incoming Biden administration's strategy should be over the next few months, given the seemingly likely possibility that they won't have access to a lot of the levers of government as an incoming administration normally would?

Oh, I think this would have been an enormous problem if a president like Bill Clinton had been taking over. Or even Barack Obama. Because Bill had no experience in the federal government at all, he was governor of a small state. Obama had only been in the in the Senate for, I think, four years.

[Biden] is an experienced person, probably the most experienced president we've ever had. He's the oldest. And he was elected to the Senate when he was 29 and started his term at the minimum age of 30. He's 78, that’s 48 years in government minus the last four years. So this guy knows government inside-out.

Finally, President-elect Biden will be building a cabinet. Have you been contacted or do you have any interest in serving in a Biden cabinet?

I would not answer that question. Sorry.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Henry Epp @TheHenryEpp.

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Henry worked for Vermont Public as a reporter from 2017 to 2023.
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