Remember Howard Dean? The former Vermont Governor galvanized grassroots activists behind his 2004 bid for the Democratic Presidential nomination, setting the path for raising millions through on-line political donations. Dean then energized the base after becoming head of the Democratic National Committee, and his “50-state strategy” was widely crediting with returning Democratic control of the House after the 2006 elections. Dean often claimed that he represented “the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party,” and was a hero to the progressive netroots. Yet at a time when President Obama is openly ignoring this “Democratic wing” while currying favor with “independents,” Dean is publicly silent over the president’s rightward shift.

Before writing this story I googled “Howard Dean” to make sure I had not missed his challenging Barack Obama’s betrayal of the “Democratic wing of the Democratic Party.”
The most recent item was an August 7, 2011 piece in Politico, where Dean said the Tea Party was “totally unreasonable” and that “certain elements of the Republican Party make it impossible for reasonable people to do what Dean said is right -- raising taxes on the wealthy.”

Of course, the President had the power to end the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy last December, but chose to extend them. And the President had the power to avoid the debt-ceiling cutbacks by invoking the 14th Amendment of the Constitution, which he angrily refused to do.

A true advocate for the “Democratic wing of the Democratic Party” would be making these points. But sadly, despite being kicked to the curb by Obama and his inner circle, Dean continues to play the role of good Democratic Party soldier, which means promoting the Party line.

Missing Kennedy and Wellstone

Does anyone think that former Senators Ted Kennedy or Paul Wellstone would have remained silent while Obama put Social Security and Medicare cuts on the table? Yet in their absence there is not a single Democratic Senator willing to publicly acknowledge that the President has strayed off course.

It’s a tragedy not only for the Democratic Party, but for the country. Because unlike situations where a Democrat moves to the right to broaden their political base – as occurred when Bill Clinton enacted so-called “welfare reform” in 1996 – Obama’s rightward moves have brought him to the lowest approval numbers of his presidency, with the most recent Gallup poll showing 39% approval, with 53% disapproving.

Could an outspoken Howard Dean have impacted Obama’s actions? Probably not. But Dean’s words would certainly have uplifted the Democratic base, which has not been so down since Bush beat Kerry in the 2004 elections.

And Dean’s leadership could have expanded the media frame from Obama v. Tea Party to also include Obama v. Democratic Party ideals. This might have impacted recent polls showing that even most New Yorkers disapprove of Obama’s presidency, which shows again that rank and file Democrats are far ahead of politicians in recognizing how far Obama has gone off course.

To be clear, House Democrats like Arizona’s Raul Grijalva have been very outspoken about Obama’s policies and actions. But regrettably, their views do not shape public attitudes or media framing.

Plouffe and Axelrod Know Best

Dean may also be reluctant to criticize Obama because it could be interpreted as a failed presidential candidate telling a winner what to do. This could explain other politicians’ silence as well.

David Plouffe and David Axelrod caught lighting in a bottle in 2008, and are the reigning political geniuses of the Democratic Party. This allows them to diminish critics of Obama or his strategy, for, after all, they’re the ones who got their man to the White House.

Plouffe’s insistence that Obama focus on “independent” voters, and seek small, realizable economic goals that will not reduce high unemployment make little political sense to the rest of us, but Plouffe and Axelrod believe they know best. And they will retain this stature through the 2010 elections, regardless how much this harms core Democratic constituencies along the way.

Not beholden to campaign donors or the Democratic Party, Howard Dean is uniquely positioned to speak out for its “Democratic wing.” After his national stature grew out of his willingness to speak unpleasant political truths, his silence today is particularly disappointing.

Randy Shaw’s most recent book is Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century.