Tom Harkin and Raul M. Grijalva Push Howard Dean for HHS

by James M. Wall

I first met Howard Dean during the early days of his 2004 run for the presidency. He struck me then, as he does now, as a passionate man with progressive ideas, a politician willing to take risks.  s-dean-large2

It is therefore, no surprise that two prominent Democratic members of Congress, Iowa’s Senator Tom Harkin and Arizona Representative Raul M. Grijalva have this week, separately, recommended that President Obama consider naming Howard Dean as the next Secretary of Health and Human Services.

The Hill story that reported these endorsements traces the history of Dean’s campaign for president and his tenure as chairman of the Democratic National Committee. It also reports on an unverified story circulating in Washington: Obama’s Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel has been blocking Dean from the HHS position.

No one speaks on the record about this rumor, but it has a history behind it; two strong willed political figures who disagreed over the conduct of the 2006 congressional campaign. 

That history begins, for Dean, in 2004 when his presidential campaign crashed after the Iowa caucus, which Dean, riding high on his internet campaign strategy, was expected to win. Instead, he ran third. One prescient blogger asked at the time if this meant the role of the internet campaigning was overblown?

The results of Monday’s Iowa Primary were shocking to many: Howard Dean, widely expected to finish first, or at least second, came in a weak third. Since Dean was seen as the Internet candidate, his finish will doubtless spur a flurry of debate on whether the Internet is capable, after all, of transforming democracy.

Has the Internet’s influence in Election 2004 been overhyped? Some have suggested that while the Internet is a valuable tool for organizing and fundraising, it’s no match for the big media or on-the-ground campaigning necessary to change voters’ minds. But let’s not relegate the Internet’s impact on American elections to a footnote just yet.

Four years later, Barack Obama demonstrated that the internet is anything but a footnote. Howard Dean left his campaign for the presidency in 2004, but that internet fueled campaign was the beginning of his role as a national political figure.

Dean’s Iowa crash was not the result of his third place finish. Dean’s money quickly dried up, once the media had created its own narrative and projected him as a screamer, thanks to a video tape that became the defining image of his campaign.

For a man new to politics, an exploitable tape, and a cooperative media mob, was all it took. The tape recorded Dean’s pep talk to volunteers in a noisy, crowded room. Without the ambient noise in the room that required Dean to shout (not “scream”) Dean came off sounding like a man possessed.

Dean’s fall in Iowa had the same impact as an earlier campaign moment when Senator Edmund Muskie apparently choked in frustration as he defended his wife from an attack from a right wing newspaper in the 1972 New Hampshire primary. The Los Angeles Times told the story:

The conservative Manchester Union Leader and its publisher William Loeb had accused Sen. Muskie of making ethnic slurs and said his wife, in an article reprinted from Newsweek and the Wall Street Journal, had used colorful language in the campaign. The Union Leader headlined the item about Jane Muskie: “Big Daddy’s Jane.”

“By attacking me and my wife,” the senator said of Loeb in a speech atop a flatbed truck outside the newspaper, “he has proved himself to be a gutless coward.”

I always thought Muskie was acting like a husband expressing justifiable anger at a political enemy. But the media’s version became the prevailing narrative; Muskie was portrayed, unfairly, as a man who could not control his emotions in public.

How did Dean respond to his Iowa road bump?  As Henry Gibson sings it in the movie, Nashville, “he kept agoin”.  When I see politicians like Dean unfairly taken down, I can’t help but think of Gibson, in his memorable role as Haven Hamilton, singing “Keep A-Goin”:

Ain’t no use to sit and whine cause the fish ain’t on your line.

Bait your hook and keep a-trying, keep a-goin

How did Howard Dean keep a-goin? Well, first, he did what he could to help in John Kerry’s campaign, which ended in defeat, the second Democrats to lose to a Texas governor who shoved the nation even deeper into an unnecessary war (which Dean had opposed), and not incidentally totally ruined a once vibrant economy.

After Kerry’s defeat, Howard Dean was elected chairman of the Democratic National Committee, a job that requires energy, risk, and a determination to solve problems, the same set of attributes folks who worked with Dean in the 2004 campaign will testify he has in abundance.

As DNC chair, Dean developed a 50-state strategy to build the party in states usually ignored by the national party. It worked for him in the 2006 congressional campaign just as it worked for Barack Obama in 2008, with Dean as the party’s chair during that campaign.

In the 2006 congressional campaign Dean famously clashed with Barack Obama’s current chief of Staff, Rahm Emanuel. The issue was one of strategy.

Emanuel was, at the time, the aggressive, take no prisoners, chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee which recruited and trained candidates for Congress. He and Dean disagreed over how best to allocate the party’s money.

Emanuel’s version of the 2006 campaign may be found in Naftali Bendavid’s book, The Thumpin’: How Rahm Emanuel and the Democrats Learned to Be Ruthless and Ended the Republican Revolution. Dean’s version of the DNC’s role in the 2006 congressional campaign will have to wait until he writes his memoirs.

One chapter of Dean’s memoirs could include a stint in President Obama’s cabinet, now that Tom Daschle’s tax problems has led to his withdrawal as Obama’s nominee as Secretary of Health and Human Services.

Dean is a logical choice to take over HHS, as Obama prepares to tackle the nation’s health care problems. He has heard strong recommendations from Tom Harkin and Raul M. Grijalva. The Hill, a political website in Washington, has the story:

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), who chairs the Appropriations subcommittee with jurisdiction over HHS and sits on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said Thursday that tapping Dean – the former chairman of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and a presidential contender in 2004 – would be “a very good move.” 

Meanwhile, Rep. Raul M. Grijalva (D – AZ), an emerging ally of the president, penned a letter to the White House Wednesday urging the same pick. . . .

“While most of the public have only known Howard as a ground-breaking candidate for president and one of the most successful leaders of our party, I have also known him as [a] champion for universal healthcare,” Grijalva wrote Obama. “It has been the cause of his life”.

Grijalva has been close to Obama, endorsing him in January 2008 after his initial pick, former Sen. John Edwards, dropped out of the race. . . .

Dean was said to be interested in the HHS position after he made clear he would not run for a third term atop the national party. But he was passed over for former Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) . . .  . Though Dean has not actively campaigned for the position, many see his biggest obstacle as White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel.

As chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Emanuel and then-DNC chief Dean clashed over budget priorities during the 2006 election cycle, sometimes ending meetings with profanity-laced tirades.

Some Dean backers say Obama, too, has snubbed the former DNC chairman who developed the so-called 50-state strategy. When Obama announced Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine (D) would take over for Dean at the DNC, Dean was in American Samoa instead of next to the then-president-elect at Democratic headquarters.

Maybe The Hill is right and Dean did not think he would be welcome at the swearing in ceremony for Kaine. Or, just maybe, Dean was doing his thing. He had pledged to visit US possessions as well as the 50 states during his DNC tenure. He had another stop to make in American Samoa.

My guess is that Samoa was more important to Dean than standing in the wings to watch his successor take over the party. And I would like to believe that the rumors about Emanuel keeping Dean away from HHS, are false.

Obama knows what he needs at HHS. Personality clashes are at the bottom of his list of priorities. Right now he has a health crisis to solve. Tom Harkin and Raul M. Grijalva are right. Howard Dean is the man for that job.

About wallwritings

From 1972 through 1999, James M. Wall was editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine, based in Chicago, lllinois. He was a Contributing Editor of the Century from 1999 until July, 2017. He has written this blog, wall, since it was launched April 27, 2008. If you would like to receive Wall Writings alerts when new postings are added to this site, send a note, saying, Please Add Me, to Biography: Journalism was Jim's undergraduate college major at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia. He has earned two MA degrees, one from Emory, and one from the University of Chicago, both in religion. He is an ordained United Methodist clergy person. He served for two years in the US Air Force, and three additional years in the USAF reserve. While serving on active duty with the Alaskan Command, he reached the rank of first lieutenant. He has worked as a sports writer for both the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, was editor of the United Methodist magazine, Christian Advocate for ten years, and editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine for 27 years. James M Wall died March 22, 2021 at age 92. His family appreciates all of his readers, even those who may have disagreed with his well-informed writings.
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2 Responses to Tom Harkin and Raul M. Grijalva Push Howard Dean for HHS

  1. Elam Nunnally says:

    Dean would be great, a marvelous choice! (incidentally, I do believe that he would have been elected president in 2004 if the Democrat Party had seen fit to nominate him. I suspect that his campaign was undercut by cross-over Republicans who voted to nominate Kerry, as the easier candidate for Bush to defeat. )


  2. judith rocchio says:

    Governor Howard B. Dean, MD, is clearly the best choice for Secretary of HHS and it would be a real shame if, with his talents, background, and deep concern for health care for all, he were to be passed over on account of some inconsequential issue that may have existed in the past between another person in the Obama office and him.

    Furthermore, many people think it would be very “un-Obama-like” if our new leader of the free world was not himself giving deep thought to who would do the best job in that HHS position. The man who put together the 50-state strategy which really helped us get “our man” into the White House thinks like our new president does in many ways and has the qualities to make a very big difference in this world because he, like President Obama cares deeply for equal services for the under-served – particularly in health care . Do not allow some undercurrent of bad feeling between one person in your West Wing and the governor to cause you to miss an extraordinary opportunity to put the best person for that spot in where he belongs.

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