Thursday, January 08, 2004

Networking I made it out to a Dean Meetup last night at The Kettle of Fish--a bar in Manhattan's West Village--to see what all the fuss was about.

A friend and I arrived late, and found ourselves in a back room stuffed with seventy-five youngish folks who were silently, motionlessly taking in Al Gore's endorsement of Dean on one of the bar's TVs.

It was an odd way to begin my first encounter with what's supposed to be one of the more energized grassroots movements in recent history--watching dozens of people staring zombielike at a CSPAN rerun.

But things picked up considerably from there.

Once the video was over, people perused literature and wrote letters to registered Iowa and New Mexico Democrats. Mostly, though, they drank, chatted and mixed--the atmosphere was more casually social than earnestly political. Deaniacs were primarily there, it seemed, to hang out with other Deaniacs.

A couple thoughts.

1. The conventional way to join a political campaign is to show up at a stuffy office in response to a call for volunteers. You spend a couple of hours licking envelopes, and maybe you return to do the same thing a few times a month. If people at the campaign grow to like each other, you might even find yourself going out for drinks after hours with a group of co-workers every now and then.

The internet, however, has allowed the Dean camp to reverse this progression--it helps them get even the most casually curious Dems in the door by keeping the stakes low and the atmosphere relaxed. This "drinks first, drudgery later" idea is in itself powerful, with potentially large organizational dividends.

2. The people I met at the Meetup were all left of center, and for many of them Dean's views on Iraq were crucial. But contrary to the image of the Dean "base" circulating in the press, the Meetup didn't seem to attract many fervent activists or raging liberals--even in a hotbed of far-left liberalism like Greenwich Village. In fact, people seemed as intrigued by the phenomenon of the Dean campaign as they were about the candidate himself.

This gets back to Jonathan Cohn's point that, ideologically-speaking, Dean has conceded very little to the left wing of the Democratic party, and therefore owes it very little. There just isn't much basis to believe that people like the ones I met last night will desert Dean in droves once he fills out his left-leaning rhetoric with centrist specifics.

And so the Dean camp has the space--and time--to get to the right of Bush on a number of issues--Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and the deficit, for starters.

They've accumulated a lot of good will with their supporters. Let's just hope they don't wait too long to spend it.

CONTRAPOSITIVE is edited by Dan Aibel. Dan's a playwright. He lives in New York City.