Howard Dean, Bernie Sanders, and why 2024 matters most

Yesterday I wrote a one-off paragraph about Howard Dean, whose 2004 presidential run – which ended at just about this time 12 years ago – influenced a large group of Early Millennials (at the time age 14-22).

FiveThirtyEight produced a superb short video called “The Dean Scream,” which chronicles the moments leading up to, and following, his infamous scream after finishing third in the Iowa Caucus. As FiveThirtyEight deftly shows, the scream didn’t really end Dean’s run to the White House. His momentum had peaked a month before Iowa, and John Kerry – the eventual Democratic nominee – was surging at the right moment.

If anything the scream allowed mainstream media and the political establishment to bury the Dean narrative. A bombastic, progressive far-liberal candidate from Vermont who used the internet to fuel his campaign wasn’t made for the long run in 2004. The scream provided a sense of closure to that.

Let’s go back to those days. I was 19, a sophomore in college, busy writing and editing at the Daily Free Press, the independent student newspaper of Boston University. As we had two strong New England presidential candidates that year, and as I was a top editor in the city news department, I was afforded the opportunity to cover some of the 2004 Democratic race. I covered John Kerry’s candidacy announcement outside Faneuil Hall, and when the candidates descended on Manchester, N.H., for primary night, I was among a group that traveled north to cover the madness. I drew the Gen. Wesley Clark straw (admittedly, I wasn’t the strongest of reporters in the group).

But during that whole moment – between November 2003 and February 2004 – Dean hysteria was strong, especially among my peers at the paper. We were almost exclusively Democrats (most pretty liberal – you know, Boston University) completely addicted to the internet. We marched in anti-war and anti-Bush rallies (I certainly did), we wrote plenty of copy about substandard health care, and especially in Massachusetts, we wrote quite a bit about the fight for gay rights. Dean was our man.

But Dean couldn’t last, not in 2004. So Kerry – an establishment candidate – emerged and lost to the neocon Bush. But what Dean accomplished in 2004 was pretty astounding: he helped mobilize an entire group of Early Millennials that would elect Barack Obama in 2008. In comparison, Hillary Clinton resembled Kerry. Obama took advantage of Kerry’s failures, of Bush’s poor performance, of a newly resurgent minority electorate, and of Millennials stirred by Dean’s progressive platform, to soar ahead of Clinton and seize the Democratic nomination in 2008.

That leads us back home, to 2016. Clinton’s back, still resembling Kerry in some ways, certainly, but also positioning herself as a logical extension of the Obama administration. We’re also far away from the Bush era, allowing Democrats to step back and consider the long-term status of the country and not simply “let’s get the bad guy out of the White House.”

Republicans are thinking that way. Donald Trump and Ted Cruz are positioned as the opposite of Obama, and as an extension, Clinton. In a sense they’re the Howard Dean of 2016, the first modern attempts at an outsider shakeup in the party. That they haven’t flamed out like Dean speaks more to the general tolerance of the party base, and in some ways, also speaks to the change in the national media environment. Dean was buried with a scream. Trump may actually have the same chance to reach the White House as Dean back in January 2004, but his angry and narrow rhetoric has allowed him to flourish.

Of course the mainstream media tilts left. When Dean screams, the media sees a wild candidate who can’t beat Bush in a national election. Democrats agree. Thus the burial. But when Trump slings his straight-talk, and the media jumps, Republicans see the left-leaning media unfairly attacking once again. So the support grows. It’s not rocket science.

Still, the Republicans best hope to take the White House in 2016 is through Marco Rubio, the best establishment candidate remaining (as establishment as he can possibly be). Rubio is the Kerry of this election, not the greatest candidate for change, but certainly someone who can fight.

Of course there’s no sure thing this time with Democrats, as Bernie Sanders has only grown in popularity over the past many months. Sanders is Dean evolved, a bombastic, progressive far-liberal candidate from Vermont who used the internet to fuel his campaign. Only this time people are ready for it. Maybe Dean has a lot to do with that.

Late Millennials love Sanders, and most Early Millennials are on board, too, though as the Democrats age, they get closer to Clinton. Ironically enough, in “The Dean Scream,” Dean appears in Iowa … to stump for Clinton.

To say that this is the big Millennial moment isn’t quite on the nose. They’ve had a few moments now, starting with Dean (Al Gore came a few years too early, interestingly), and hitting a less radical peak with Obama. Sanders – and to a lesser extent Trump and Cruz – confirms that Millennial Democrats want a more radical, non-establishment future. If these candidates don’t win, that doesn’t mean that future washes away. It just means 2024 is very likely the real turning point. Then, we’ll be ages 23-42, and we’ll have our say completely.