Dean's health care stand has infuriated party leaders, who have alternately tried to marginalize him and to bring him on board. Yet at the same time, his provocative approach has re-energized the political group he founded and thrilled legions of progressive activists, many of whom were drawn to politics by Dean's insurgent 2004 presidential campaign, then deflated when he didn't land an Obama Cabinet post.
They have grown increasingly disenchanted with Obama's presidency and are urging Dean to keep up the drumbeat as the health care debate heads to conference this month; to push Obama to stand more firmly with liberals on other issues; and, if the administration continues to disappoint, to consider challenging Obama in the 2012 Democratic primaries (a far-fetched scenario for which one liberal blogger recently posited Dean was "perfectly positioned") or - if nothing else - to seek the party's presidential nomination in 2016, when Obama could be finishing his second term.
"It's almost like the circle has come all the way around again, and Howard Dean's voice is leading the same charge that he started to lead in 2003," said Joe Trippi, who ran Dean's 2004 campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination.
In fact, Dean's resurgence in some ways resembles his meteoric rise to national prominence as a dark-horse presidential candidate whose strident anti-war rhetoric set the left ablaze even as it made Washington Democrats uneasy. This time around, his supporters and allies say, he is even better positioned to channel liberal frustrations, given his health care bona fides. A medical doctor, Dean as governor of Vermont oversaw the creation of a universal health care program for children and pregnant women in that state. But - policy specifics aside - for many supporters, Dean's harsh December allegations that Obama and Senate Democrats caved to big insurance companies by shelving both a public health insurance option and the Medicare expansion that replaced it – and his much-criticized assertion that "the best thing to do right now is kill the Senate bill and go back to the House and start the reconciliation process" – brought to mind his 2004 campaign pledge "to represent the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party."
Dean did not respond to requests for comment for this story. But sources close to him said that when the health care debate concludes, he'll likely continue pushing the White House and congressional Democrats to take liberal stances on other issues, including alternative energy, and also will stay involved with Democracy for America, the political action committee he founded and recently reconnected with.
"He is going to keep pushing the envelope on health care and some other issues," said Dean's brother, Jim Dean, chairman of DFA, which was created from the remnants of his brother's presidential campaign. "Someone's got to do it, because a lot of Obama's core constituencies don't feel like they're getting paid attention to right now."
. . . After Obama last January tapped close ally Tim Kaine to replace Dean at the DNC, Dean hired former DNC communications director Karen Finney as his spokeswoman and signed on as a contributor at CNBC, a strategic advisor with McKenna Long & Aldridge (a major lobbying firm for which he specializes in healthcare and alternative energy issues) and a consultant at DFA, where he participates in regular strategy sessions.
. . . After MSNBC host Joe Scarborough late last month cited a Washington Post columnist's suggestion that Dean had "lost his mind," Dean shot back, "Those are also the same people who said I didn't know what I was talking about when I said we shouldn't get into Iraq, when our party caved in on that issue six years ago."
On NBC's "Meet the Press" last month, Dean said that the left has "been very disappointed" by the Senate's shelving proposals for a government-run health insurance plan. "We don't think that there has been much fight in the White House for that," Dean charged, asserting that the Senate bill falls well short of the type of reform Obama promised during his campaign and could make an already difficult Democratic 2010 election cycle even harder.
Trippi said DFA could serve as a vehicle to help launch a future Howard Dean campaign by paying for staff and travel. Though he rejected the Netroots-stoked speculation that Dean would challenge Obama in a 2012 Democratic primary, Trippi asserted a 2016 Dean presidential run is not all that far-fetched.
Dean would turn 68 just after election day in 2016. . .