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Dean Defends Lieberman Decision, Speaks of “Mandate for Reconciliation”

In a brief but candid and wide-ranging telephone interview with a selection of bloggers and new media journalists, former Vermont Governor and DNC Chairman Howard Dean spoke frequently on themes of reconciliation and pragmatism, defended his party’s decision to keep Joe Lieberman within its caucus, and said that the 50-state strategy will continue — at least in spirit.

Much of the interview focused on Lieberman, as Dean received a tough and thorough line of questioning from Jane Hamsher of FireDogLake and John Aravosis of AmericaBLOG. “The truth is, Barack Obama got a mandate to bring the country together and to stop the politics of anger,” Dean said, leaving little doubt that Obama’s signal that Lieberman should keep his Homeland Security chairmanship had been instrumental to the party’s decision today to give the Connecticut senator a pass.

Dean suggested that the decision should be political rather than personal, indicating that while “certainly [he] had anger” over Lieberman’s actions during the presidential campaign, there was little space for what he regarded as a punitive action. When pressed by Hamsher about Lieberman’s qualifications to chair the Homeland Security Committee, Dean said that he hadn’t examined Lieberman’s credentials in detail: “I was too busy trying to figure out how to win the election. [But] I certainly hope they did look at his record.”

Dean also spoke of the decision in generational terms.

“If you get a mandate for reconciliation … is your first act going to be to kick him [Lieberman] to the curb?”, Dean said. “If you’re in my generation you say, ‘yeah, damn right we should'”.

But, Dean claimed, the younger generation’s tone and strategies are different. “The younger generation’s message is, let’s put aside something that we can’t agree on and do something about the things that we can agree on.” At the same time, Dean acknowledged that he expected dissension, particularly within the netroots — “I’m sure the sentiment online is one of outrage”.

Dean repeatedly mentioned two particular issues that he expected Obama to focus on: national health care and alternative energy. When I asked Dean what Obama’s time horizon might be on these issues, he responded “[Obama]’s going to have to make changes sooner rather than later,” suggesting that these things would be priorities within the first two years of Obama’s administration. “I don’t see the economic disasters of the past few weeks as a reason not to do it.”

Dean gave less attention to a prospective pullout of troops from Iraq, implying that a pullout was inevitable but that a debate over time horizons was not a good use of Obama’s political capital.

Dean also responded to questions about Democratic tactics, particularly with respect to the “50-state strategy” that he engineered. “The 50-state strategy is really an empowerment philosophy more than anything else. You can’t empower people in Utah or in Texas if you don’t show up there. Whatever I’m going to do next is based on empowerment and the 50-state strategy is an empowerment strategy.” Dean suggested that states such as Georgia and Texas might be attractive targets for Democrats at the presidential level in 2012.

At the same time, Dean said, governance in a majority requires a different timbre than party-building.

“We just turned the page on a generation of politics.” Dean said. “Barack Obama is the president who will bring in hundreds and hundreds of young people into politics and keep them there. Now has to govern. One of the fun parts of my campaign is that we could throw a little bomb from time to time but you can’t do that when you’re governing. The hard part now — is — we won. Now it’s a different skill set and it’s going to require some restraint and some thoughtfulness”.

I also asked Dean his opinion on Rod Blagojevich’s decision to appoint a replacement for Barack Obama in Illinois. “I’d always rather pick someone who can win re-election,” he said.

Dean also gave Al Franken better than 50-50 odds of prevailing in Minnesota’s recount, and said that Democrats “already have” a recount strategy in place. “In 2006, we supported Democratic Secretaries of State. I’m not so worried about the recount because I think it will be run by a qualified, competent person who will put democracy ahead of their party.”

Dean was less forthcoming about his own future, repeatedly stressing that he had no plans and wasn’t certain about what he was going to do next.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.