Not George W. Bush. Not Al Gore. It's Dean's importance that will resonate through the next generation, just as Barry Goldwater still resonates today.
The reason is that Dean understands how, in an Internet age, a political party must exist everywhere to be effective. As Matt Bai's New York Times feature makes clear, Dean has sacrificed his own political ambitions to a four-year stint building a new Democratic Party from the ground-up.
When Dean showed up on the national stage nearly four years ago asking to "represent the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party" it resonated with many liberals. When he embraced the Netroots, it resonated with many bloggers. His speeches, if you read them, are revelations, great and simple writing that deserve attention regardless of your political affiliation.
But what he is doing now will mark him, because it's so absolutely vital.
Critics like to say Dean's 50-state strategy will "destroy the Democratic party" and claim there "is no Democratic establishment." Both claims are specious. There are in fact two parties, one composed of activists who believe in what the party is all about, the other consisting of professionals who say they are trying to implement that vision.
Once people cross the line from just complaining (as bloggers often do) to getting in the line and working (which Dean wants people to do) these lines start to blur a bit. Those who were just complaining start to see the problems more clearly. They may find themselves fighting corporate interests within the party, even waging primary fights, but their involvement is what makes the party go.
Second, a campaign based on TV ads won't work anymore. Many folks are smarter than that. The Internet is pushing political knowledge, and political bullshit detectors, further-and-further down into the body politic. You can now design, and implement, a TV ad campaign for just $4,000. The depth of knowledge available to even the lowliest political Indian is incredible. In this kind of environment it's the side with the best Indians, not the best chiefs and not necessarily even the most Indians, that is going to prevail.
Dean's 50-state strategy is designed to create activists. It's designed to turn bloggers into activists, to turn people concerned with just local issues into activists, and to connect all these people to the top reaches of the party through the Internet and a self-sustaining pyramid of bloggers acting as a "jungle telegraph" between the bottom and the top.
There is an immense difference between Dean's strategy and even the Republicans' Netroots strategy, one that many in the Democratic blogosphere still don't get. Dean is trying to get all people working from the bottom-up, with the blogosphere working to transfer information between the bottom and the top. The Republican blogosphere strategy works from the top down, with politicians holding meetings and giving orders, talking points to be repeated endlessly on the Internet.
Dean is engaged in the practical politics of open source, not just the online version. He doesn't want the Internet to live just in the ether, but also in the real world. While everything about Republican strategy remains proprietary.
This is not just going to impact the 2006 election (its impact on the results this year will, in fact, be minimal) but every election for decades to come. When every citizen has access to the party apparatus, and when that apparatus is responsive to the concerns of every local group. you have a sea change in how government works. That sea change is happening. Dean is taking advantage of it.
Those who claim that Howard Dean is risking some gains for 2006 are right. But he's also making the party apparatus ready for 2016. In that year he will be "just" 66 years old, and ready to become the Ronald Reagan of our childrens' time.
Can the same man be the Barry Goldwater, the Richard Viguerie, the Pat Robertson, and the Ronald Reagan of the same political movement?
Maybe not. But that's what Howard Dean aims to do. And I wouldn't bet against his succeeding.