Rather, they say, it was a reflection of the lack of respect accorded to the outgoing party chairman by the Obama team.
Despite leading the party in consecutive triumphant election cycles – as well as through off-year races like when Kaine was elected Virginia governor in 2005 – Dean has become all but invisible since Election Day, passed over for the Cabinet position he coveted and apparently not in line for another administration post.
Indeed, when President-elect Barack Obama introduced Kaine at party headquarters Thursday afternoon, Dean was 7,023 miles and seven time zones away, closer to French Polynesia than Washington, doing party grunt work in American Samoa.
His allies aren’t happy about it.
“If he had been asked to go to that event, he would have been there,” Jim Dean, the chairman’s brother, noted twice in an interview.
Dean’s reward for the party recapturing the White House, House, Senate, and taking control of seven governor’s mansions and eight state legislatures on his watch?
So far, nothing.
A physician by training who devoted much of his time as Vermont governor to health care, Dean had his eye on becoming Secretary of Health and Human Services. But the post went to Obama ally and former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle. The fact that Dean wasn’t even included in Thursday’s ceremonial — and very public — transfer of power from him to Kaine only underscored his isolation.
"The snub today was no accident," said one Dean ally. “I guarantee you he would have rescheduled his trip if asked to attend. It’s easy to [screw] over people when you are riding high in the polls, let's see how many people are singing his praises in six months."
Asked about Dean’s absence, Obama spokesman Ben LaBolt noted that the chairman was out of town and pointed to the president-elect’s praise in prepared remarks.
“He launched a 50-state strategy that made Democrats competitive in places they had not been in years, working with my chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, to give Democrats a majority in the House for the first time in over a decade,” Obama said of the Vermonter.
The obligatory praise did little to placate Dean loyalists, and the mention of Emanuel, who Dean famously clashed with when Democrats took back Congress in 2006, felt like a gratuitous slap to some.
But Dean likely didn’t see the event. Instead of basking in accolades from the president-elect and his own successor in person, the chairman was in American Samoa, completing his effort to visit every state and territorial Democratic party.
It’s a trip, his backers say, he would have gladly rescheduled to have been present for the Kaine announcement. It’s hardly the victory lap his allies expected—and many of them see it as the final sign of disrespect from Obama forces.
“It’s the most puzzling thing I’ve ever seen in my life,” added a longtime Democrat and friend of Dean, echoing the exasperation and befuddlement many close to him feel about his treatment since the election. “I have tried my best through [Obama advisers] Valerie Jarrett, David Axelrod and David Plouffe to ask if he ever committed some crime. I don’t get it. He’s been a good soldier.”
A third Dean ally likened the outgoing chairman to two other high-profile Democrats who would seem to have given Obamaland more heartburn in the recent past.
“If we can forgive Joe Lieberman for actively campaigning against Obama, this seems crazy to me. And Hillary Clinton did ok and lots of her people are getting plum assignments,” noted the ally. “I really think he has rehabilitated himself. He showed he can be team player. It just seems so odd and I don’t know what the reasons are.”
A fourth Dean admirer found some gallows humor in the doctor’s disappearing act: “He said he wanted to be in the cabinet,” joked this source. “So they stuffed him in the cabinet and locked the door.”
Joe Trippi, who was Dean’s presidential campaign manager in 2004 but has not been shy about criticizing his former candidate, praised Dean for his DNC stewardship and willingness to take on the status quo.
“He was never afraid to challenge the way party establishment in Washington did business and that doesn’t win you friends in either party,” Trippi said by way of explaining the friction.
Getting closer to the point, Trippi added: “You don’t have to look any further than Rahm Emanuel.”
Emanuel served as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and battled repeatedly with Dean over party priorities in 2006. Emanuel, then an Illinois congressman, wanted to focus resources on competitive House races while Dean was more focused on expanding the party’s reach into red America as part of his “50-state strategy.”
“Now one of them is the Chief of Staff to the president of the United States and one of them is the outgoing party chair,” Trippi wryly observed.
A source familiar with Emanuel's thinking dismissed the charges.
"Anyone who thinks Rahm has the time or inclination to do anything other than focus on transitioning to the White House and passing an economic recovery package isn't knowledgeable enough about his thinking to be commenting in a political story."
A close friend to Emanuel insisted that the incoming chief of staff was not plotting against his old adversary.
“I talk to Rahm every day,” said this source. “Neither he nor I have mentioned the name of Howard Dean. It’s just not on his radar screen.”
In any event, the friend said, Dean would know for sure if he was being shunted aside by the new administration.
“Rahm never stabs you in the back. He stabs you in in front. But I promise that this was accidental.”
Jim Dean said the past scrapes with Emanuel may be partly to blame, but, like some others close to the chairman, he was mostly mystified at the treatment.
“I get grumpy about it,” Dean said. “In fact, I was grumpy about it over Thanksgiving and Howard pushed back and said, ‘Look, they’re not going do everything for everybody.’”
“He understands this is a grown-up business.”
But Jim Dean, who heads the progressive offshoot of the former Vermont governor’s presidential campaign, is not even letting Kaine take over the position before urging him to hold fast to the outgoing chairman’s signature initiative.
“Call on Tim Kaine to immediately renew the 50 State Strategy and we'll make sure he gets the message,” Dean wrote in a blast email Wednesday night on behalf of Democracy for America, urging the Virginia governor to re-hire the committee’s 50 state organizers.
As if to prove the battle over strategic priorities still continues, Dean also wrote that “Only three years ago, Gov. Dean was mocked by party insiders and Washington Democrats for spending DNC resources in Alaska.”
“This week, Alaskans watched Mark Begich swear in as their newly elected Democratic Senator,” Dean added in the email, contending that Democrats risk their gains by “return[ing] to a shallow strategy of only fighting for votes in a few swing states.”
Dean’s critics suggest it was such targeting and precision, rather than a 50-state approach, that helped make the difference in key districts and states the past two cycles.
Trippi split the difference.
“The DNC had become another short-term committee,” the longtime consultant said, alluding to their past tendency to only focus on the next cycle in a fashion similar to the two congressional committees. “Howard Dean made them the party committee that takes the long view.”
Before leaving for the South Pacific, Dean discussed his future.
“I didn`t do this for the spoils,” Dean told Chris Matthews on MSNBC’s “Hardball.” “I did this for the country. I`m very happy that Barack Obama is president, and I think he`s picked a great cabinet. And I`m pretty happy. I wouldn`t trade my position for any other position right now. I`m going to go into the private sector, make a living making speeches, and do a lot of stuff on health care policy.”
But, showing a flash of the old, off-message Dean, the outgoing chairman couldn’t help but crack wise about just one of the new president’s challenges.
"You gotta hand it to Blagojevich," said Dean of the embattled Illinois governor’s brazen appointment of Roland Burris to succeed Obama in the Senate. "What a maneuver! What a maneuver! When his back was against the wall he outsmarted a lot of people.”
Ben Smith contributed to this report.