The ‘Dean machine’ hits Paris with a wired gospel

Democrat Howard Dean, the pioneer of cyber political activism, was invited to a Paris talk on revitalizing and upgrading political life. But can the lessons from US presidential campaigns be downloaded in France?


The man credited with running the world’s first 21st century election campaign rolled into town this weekend, on a mission to spread the gospel of the Internet and nudge the faithful on the path to online political activism.


At a town hall meeting in Paris Saturday, Howard Dean, former Vermont governor and 2004 US presidential candidate, attempted to share some of his campaigning expertise with a gathering of mostly French Socialist Party volunteers and supporters.


Exactly five months after Barack Obama won the US presidential election following an extraordinary, Internet-driven campaign, the man who is often called the ‘architect’ of the Obama campaign strategy acknowledged his contribution to history.


Dean may have lost the 2004 Democratic nomination to John Kerry. But he did succeed in eliciting a visceral passion among supporters - dubbed “Deaniacs” or “Deanie Babies” – through an organized campaign of online fund-raising and grassroots activism unprecedented in US politics.


Referring to his presidential run, Dean noted that the millions-strong lists of voter email addresses that his campaign generated were inherited and effectively used by the Obama campaign.


“By the time that Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton ran in the primaries, we had nationwide lists of every single voter,” he said. “We had our troops ready to go. We had our lists ready to go. We had staff on the ground that had been there four years and we knew what we were doing.”


From ‘Dean screamer’ to the Socialist daydreamer


The sedate, wood-paneled majesty of Paris’ fourth district town hall (mairie du IVème arrondissement de Paris) was a far cry from the mammoth park rallies cramped with tens of thousands of wildly worshipful supporters Dean faced during his 2004 run.


Back in his heyday Dean displayed such oratorical zeal that, in the end, it proved to be his undoing. The video clip of his Iowa concession speech, featuring a hollering, red-faced candidate in what came to be called the “Dean scream” (see video below) so rattled voters, that his campaign essentially ended.



But in his new avatar of political guru and chairman emeritus of the DNC (Democratic National Committee), Dean is a more subdued man these days.


Sharing the podium with the French Socialist Party’s new generation stars, Arnaud Montebourg and Delphine Batho, Dean was the special guest at Saturday’s talk, titled “Modernizing political life”, and organized by Terra Nova, a Left-leaning Paris-based think-tank.


For the rank-and-file Socialist Party members in the audience, the mission of the talk was single-minded: how could they download an installation-easy Dean magic software to move their party from France’s opposition to ruling party?


France’s largest opposition party has been in disarray since an acrimonious power struggle between 2007 presidential candidate Segolene Royal and Martine Aubry reached a peak last November when Aubry assumed the Socialist Party leadership. The party has failed to produce a French president since Francois Mitterrand left office in 1995.


But Dean asserted that, as an American politician, he could only share his experiences, not offer solutions. “The problems of the Socialist Party in France are the problems of the Socialist Party,” he maintained.


Reaching the senior, unwired vote 


But that did not stop the audience from looking to their invited messiah for answers.


“How do we reach out to older voters who support the UMP?” asked an audience member referring to French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s ruling Union for a Popular Movement party.


It was an odd question for an ex-candidate whose campaign strategy deliberately broke with the old Democratic Party platform of trying to woo aging, affluent senior voters.

But as an invited guest, Dean was doing his best.


The trick, he suggested, might lie in senior citizen fears of dwindling social security - especially healthcare - coverage. “I suspect that’s the case in France,” he said.


How the Dean cyber-solution could be grafted on a country with one of the world’s best and most expensive social security networks for a largely unwired section of the population was not answered.


In his address, Montebourg suggested that the US system of open primaries to pick party candidates could be “an evolution for the Left and the party.”


But Dean was cautious about adopting the US primary model. “One problem of primaries is disunity,” he warned. “You can’t translate everything you do in the US in France.”


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