Howard Dean likes to tell the story about how he raged against the Democratic Party during a late-night phone call in 2004 with former Vice President Al Gore. Dean's dream of riding his insurgent, Internet-fueled candidacy to a presidential nomination had disintegrated. He felt betrayed by his party, and spared no invective during his rant about how he owed Democrats nothing.
Gore, who lost the bitterly contested 2000 presidential race, listened patiently and then counseled. "Howard," he said, "you know this is not about you. It's about your country."
Dean heard that message—he has chaired Democratic National Committee since 2005—and used the Gore story last Saturday to open what became a tumultuous and acrimonious party meeting. Delegates from Michigan and Florida were seated with half votes, ending the uncertainty over how the states would be represented at the convention. But perhaps more significantly, the gathering exposed for a national audience the bitter divisions the party must quickly figure out how to heal.
Dean's argument that day that the contest wasn't about Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton but about the country just as it was four years ago, fell flat. The restive, partisan crowd wasn't buying it. And by the end of the day, Dean—and every other Democratic leader—knew they had tough work to do to unite the fractious party before they could go full-bore into a general election fight with presumed GOP nominee John McCain.
Obama has now staggered across the finish line. But Clinton has stubbornly refused to leave the stage. (That awkwardness was reflected this morning in a statement by the DNC and party leaders extolling the "transformational election" and shifting attention to the general election battle, but there was no celebration or even mention of Obama's historic accomplishment.)
And while the Democrats are waiting to hear what it is that Clinton wants and her surrogates push her for vice president, McCain is out on the stump fishing for disaffected Democrats. Those include Clinton's more radical supporters who have vowed that without her as the nominee, they'll either stay home in the fall, or, like Lee Myszak, a lifelong Florida Democrat who demonstrated outside Saturday's meeting, will vote for McCain. Why? "I think he's a patriot," she said.
The Republican National Committee today launched a video using Clinton's own criticisms of Obama as not prepared to be commander in chief. And McCain and his surrogates, including Sen. Joseph Lieberman, continued to step up their criticism of the presumed Democratic nominee's foreign policy bona fides.
DNC spokesperson Karen Finney says that the party faces a challenge to channel the widespread "good feeling, energy, excitement, and passion" felt by Democrats into the general election campaign. There needs to be a healing process, she says, after the long primary battle, during which there were rough moments, including displays of sexism and racism. "We have to be as a party strong enough to have our disagreements, talk about them, and get them in the open," Finney says.
Clinton today showed signs of movement. Her fight-on speech last night gave way this morning to her assurances to the American Jewish community at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference that "Senator Obama will be a good friend to Israel." But party insiders say the longer she keeps Obama and the party hanging, the more she damages herself in the long run.
Dean says that Gore, because of what he had been through, was the only person who could have given him the get-with-the-party advice. Gore, an uncommitted superdelegate and one of the party's most popular and influential leaders, has been nearly invisible this campaign season. But it looks like the party sure could use him about now. Paging Al Gore?