Howard Dean To 2020 Democratic Candidates: 'Get In Line' For The Sake Of The Country

Download Audio
Howard Dean, former chair of the Democratic National Committee, says presidential candidates need to remember they "owe this country something." (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Howard Dean, former chair of the Democratic National Committee, says presidential candidates need to remember they "owe this country something." (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

With the highly-anticipated Iowa caucuses right around the corner, Howard Dean has some advice — from personal experience as a candidate — for 2020 hopefuls who might not come out on top when the nomination is ultimately decided.

“We owe this country something and we don't owe ourselves,” the former Vermont governor and former chair of the Democratic National Committee says. “So whoever is going to lose this race better get in line if they care about the country, and if they don't get in line, they don't care about the country.”

He didn’t really feel that way himself when his own bid for the presidency ended in 2004.

Going into the Iowa caucus that year, Dean was one of the leading Democratic presidential contenders. He ended up finishing third in Iowa but the headlines he made that night had more to do with his speech than his third-place showing. He delivered what was referred to as the “Dean Scream” — a speech that generated a flood of jokes and overshadowed the results.

John Kerry won Iowa and also won the New Hampshire primary shortly afterward, with Dean coming in second. He ended up dropping out after the Wisconsin primary that February, where he also finished third. Kerry went on to win the Democratic nomination but lost to George W. Bush in the November election.

Dean’s experience left him furious. Former Vice President Al Gore, who had endorsed Dean, called him and listened as he ranted. Dean remembers Gore telling him: “You know, Howard, this is really about the country. It's not about you.”

“Now, I was so angry that the only person that ever could have said that was Al Gore, who was really screwed out of the presidency of the United States … ” he says, referring to the 2000 election that went to the Supreme Court. “For Al Gore to tell me that, really it was like a shot to the jaw.”

That was a February 16 years ago. Right now, no one knows who will be in or out of the race in just a few weeks.

Why Iowa Matters

The deciding starts in Iowa, and Dean says winning this first contest is important for two reasons. First, it’s a test of a campaign’s organizational effort. Second, securing Iowa gives the top contender’s campaign a significant boost in name recognition and attention.

But for those who come in second, third, or even fourth, Iowa doesn’t necessarily determine the eventual winner.

“Iowa is not the end of the process. It's only the beginning of the process,” he says.

He speculates that Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg, Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden and Amy Klobuchar have the best organizations on the ground in Iowa. The conventional wisdom is that there are three “tickets” out of Iowa — first, second or third — but this year there could be four or even five, Dean says.

The field has narrowed from 21 candidates and Dean has some ideas about changing the process, something the Democratic Party will have to “relook” at before 2024 elections.

If he were to make changes, he’d rotate other states into the early positions that New Hampshire and Iowa have traditionally occupied because those states are both more than 90% white, according to the 2010 census.

“Our party doesn't look like that,” Dean says. “Our party is diverse. It's young and it's female.”

Looking To More Diverse States During Preliminary Elections

New Hampshire is particularly concerning to him not only because of demographics but because a Republican majority in the legislature passed a bill that adds new requirements to vote, making it harder for out-of-state college students to cast a ballot.

The law says if a student drives, they'd need to get a New Hampshire license and register their car in the state in order to vote. He says this disenfranchises the Democrats’ “core constituencies” — young people.

“So I don't see any allegation that the Democratic Party has to start off in a state that doesn't look anything like our party and that suppresses one of the most important voting groups for Democrats,” he says.

But he’s not knocking Iowa and New Hampshire off the list altogether, he says, because he still believes small states need to go first in the primaries. That allows for a lot of face to face contact with voters. When he was party chairman, Dean added Nevada and South Carolina to the roster because of those states’ diverse populations.

With a younger and more diverse base, he’s thinking about the future of the party. He points to freshman legislators in Congress, saying not only is the Democratic base changing, but members are now “electing people who look like our party.”

If the party nominates someone who’s his age, he says, “that’s a holding pattern.”

The 2020 Democratic candidates are running competitive, hard fought campaigns as the first contest approaches. And as the results start to come in, Dean believes they’ll need to heal their divisions and unite behind the eventual Democratic nominee.

“If they want to be divisive, they'll be divisive,” he says. “And if they want to help the country, they'll do the right thing.”

Alex Ashlock produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Serena McMahon adapted it for the web. 

This segment aired on January 28, 2020.


Headshot of Jeremy Hobson

Jeremy Hobson Former Co-Host, Here & Now
Before coming to WBUR to co-host Here & Now, Jeremy Hobson hosted the Marketplace Morning Report, a daily business news program with an audience of more than six million.


Headshot of Serena McMahon

Serena McMahon Digital Producer
Serena McMahon was a digital producer for Here & Now.



More from Here & Now

Listen Live