Howard Dean got a standing ovation from the Liberal Democrat conference on Saturday morning. Yet it seemed to me that it was President Obama that the audience were in large part applauding. The ‘Obama Effect’ was a major theme of the 2009 Spring Conference and the sense of relief amongst Lib Dems that George Bush is no longer in the White House was most clearly felt during Dean’s speech.
I was slightly disappointed by the delivery of the speech itself. Somehow I expected a senior American politician such as Howard Dean to be a lot slicker. Yet, despite the at times somewhat halting delivery, he had some very interesting things to say.
A Liberal Democrat?
In introducing Dean Ed Davey MP did his best to appropriate the Dean/Democrat/Obama magic for the party. Saying that electing President Obama the US had elected not only a Democrat, but a Liberal Democrat. Look, he even supports electoral reform said Davey at one point. The former Governor politely refused to rise to the bait, wanting to avoid a “diplomatic incident”, but when he begun to run through the challenges for the new administration it was clear just how much their agenda is a comfortable one for Lib Dems. The desperate need to reform health care, to reshape America’s relationship with the world, to be good stewards of the environment, to support free markets but with strong regulation so that free markets do not spin out of control, and to ensure that all American’s can have a retirement with dignity all sounded good to us.
But it was on foreign policy that changes were most welcome. Dean strongly made the point that the new administration was, in contrast to the Bush years, going to have a new approach. He said; “we will return America to consensus building”. America will work in partnership with its friends and will be willing talk to its enemies was the message. In particular, he said, and this was more his personal agenda, that he wanted to reassess the West’s approach to Africa. He highlighted the problems that that continent is facing, the failures in aid programmes to help, and how at times aid can make things worse, His argument was that we should shift to a greater focus on capacity building. He told us that he was going to say more about this in a speech he was going on to make in Brussels.
Campaigning & organising
This was all good stuff and good for the soul. However, what we all had really come to hear was Dean on campaigning. We were not disappointed.
I picked out three messages from what he said about campaigning. The first was the simple truth of the importance of organisation. He was clear that you win campaigns by getting out and knocking on doors. Things like advertising and the internet are important but it is the personal relationship you establish with the voters is what gets you elected.
In order to knock on enough doors and establish a personal relationship with enough voters you have to be organised. Here preparation, the development of infrastructure and the training of your volunteers is vital. Dean’s famous ’50 state strategy’ was essentially about ensuring that the Democrats had an organisation everywhere across the US. This raises problematic questions for the Liberal Democrats and our mantra of targeting.
Your values in their language
The second message was, just as you have to organise geographically everywhere you can, you have to reach out to as many groups as you can.
He used the example of young evangelical Christians who were traditionally seen as republican voters. When the Democratic party polled them they found that many of their issues, such as a concern for social justice or the conflict in Darfur, where Democrat issues. So a successful effort was made to win them over.
But Dean said this effort was not about converting them into typical Democrat voters, but an effort to show then who the Democrats really were, what they really believed in, and doing so on their ground. He was clear in reaching out to different groups you had to speak about your values in their language. This could be difficult but “if you don’t try, you cannot win” he said.
Finally, he was insightful about how to use the Internet which he said was two things.
First it is a tool. It is not a magic answer, it is a method of communicating. He warned “it does not work for anyone who has nothing to say”.
Second it is a community that needs to be respected and reached out to. You try to make contact with the internet activist groups and it is especially good for connecting with the young.
He made the interesting point that one of the great strengths that use of the internet can bring to politics is its ability to break down barriers of knowledge and information. He commented that in Amercia politics is “opaque ” but that here in the UK because of our parliamentary system it is even more so. There is a problem with people getting to understand how politics works. The internet can be really helpful in tackling this.
Develop a personal connection. Reach out to people and talk in their language. That is how we refresh democracy. That was Dean’s message.
He ended by saying that the message of the new generation to his generation was to put aside the old political battles and to work together to fix the problems that we face.
- Video of Howard Dean’s speech to the Liberal Democrat Conference
- Alix Mortimer on LDV live blogs the speech
- Photos from A Lanson Boy
This content was originally posted on my old Process Guy blog.