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Second thoughts about Dean

Regular readers know I've always had a soft spot for Howard Dean. It is perhaps for this reason that I never understood all the Democratic angst at the prospect of Dean heading the DNC. It strikes me that Howie has a proven track record of both raising money and energizing the party's base. What more do you want from a party chairman?

Well, the New Republic's resident Bush-hater Johnathan Chait is giving me second thoughts. He calls the idea "suicidally crazy."

The DNC chairman has two main jobs. First, he transmits the party's message -- an important role when the party lacks a president and majority leaders in Congress. This job requires one to master the dismal art of "message discipline," boiling down the party's ideas into a few simple phrases and repeating them over and over until they have sunk into the public consciousness.

It's a role for which Dean is particularly ill suited. During his campaign, remember, he fashioned himself a straight talker, delighting reporters by repeatedly wandering "off message." On the plus side, he won friends in the media by appearing honest and human. On the negative side, he did himself enormous damage, when, for example, he suggested that he wouldn't prejudge Osama bin Laden until he had been convicted in a court of law.

For presidential candidates, the negatives of "straight talk" usually outweigh the positives. Paul Maslin, Dean's former pollster, wrote in the Atlantic Monthly after the campaign fell apart: "Our candidate's erratic judgment, loose tongue, and overall stubbornness wore our spirits down." But at least for a presidential campaign there are some positives in going off message. In a job like party chairman, a loose cannon is nothing but downside.

The second major task of the DNC chairman is to run the party organization. And here, if this is at all possible, Dean looks even worse. Garance Franke-Ruta, who wrote sympathetic Dean pieces in the American Prospect during the campaign, spoke with several former Dean staffers. One called the candidate "a horrible manager" and added, "I wouldn't trust him to run a company." Another called his management style "just a disaster."

Dean, remember, raised about $50 million by positioning himself as the most anti-Bush candidate, but blew through it so fast that he was nearly broke by January. This represents the sort of financial acumen you associate with deluded, flash-in-the-pan celebrities -- cue the narrator for VH-1's "Behind the Music": "But the good times and lavish spending couldn't last for M.C. Hammer" -- not with chairmen of major political parties.

Give it a read. I don't know that I'm completely convinced that Dean would be an epic disaster for the Democrats, but Chait does raise some pretty good points. Call me undecided. Fortunately, since I'm not a Democrat, I don't need to worry about it much either way.