The Hope of the Web

Markos Moulitsas Zúniga
Markos Moulitsas Zúniga; drawing by David Levine

The birth of the new movement led by Daily Kos came in 2003 with the unexpected emergence of Howard Dean as a presidential candidate. Since that campaign provided both the technological and spiritual inspiration of much that came later, it’s important to reconsider what Dean’s venture was (and was not) about. It rose in the shadows of the Bush ascendancy in the years following September 11, when very few people—certainly not presidential candidates with an eye to getting elected—were willing to challenge the White House directly. In that situation, Howard Dean’s forthrightness, especially his willingness to strongly oppose the war in Iraq, united many people worried that Bush had succeeded in stifling dissent.

But it’s also important to realize that Dean wasn’t particularly liberal. In his years as governor of Vermont he’d earned a reputation as a moderate in social and fiscal policy, addressing health care for children, for instance, but frustrating local activists by refusing to take up a more comprehensive medical plan. Bernie Sanders, the former mayor of Burlington who is now the only independent member of the House of Representatives, is a Vermont liberal. Dean is not. What mattered in Dean’s case was his open manner and his willingness to risk making clear statements about Iraq. In their book, Armstrong and Moulitsas—who are widely known on the Internet by their shorthand names Jerome and Kos—retell the story of the campaign’s early days, especially Dean’s speech to the California Democratic Party in March 2003. He followed the well-known candidates, who trimmed and tacked:

The crowd, a few thousand of the party diehards, was getting a close look at the men seeking the Democratic nod, and not liking what it saw.

And then Howard Dean walked on stage.

“What I want to know is what in the world so many Democrats are doing supporting the President’s unilateral intervention in Iraq?”

That brought loud cheers from the delegates.

“What I want to know is what in the world so many Democrats are doing supporting tax cuts which have bankrupted this country and given us the largest deficit in the history of the United States?”

Soon the crowd was chanting “Dean, Dean,” and that was before he unleashed his signature line: “I want my country back! We want our country back! I’m tired of being divided! I don’t want to listen to the fundamentalist preachers anymore! I want America to look like America, where we are all included….We have a dream. We can only reach the dream if we are all together—black and white, gay and straight, man and woman. America! The Democratic Party!”

The crowd, they write, “was on its feet, the convention hall shaking from audience pandemonium, the speech serving as a liberation of sorts.” Party activists “weren’t alone in the fight. Not anymore. They had a champion and his name was…

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