Meet The Nation: Howard Dean
On many issues, Dean lines up--or ends up--on the left, though occasionally with a twist. Asked about affirmative action, he angrily assails Bush for dishonestly and exploitatively using the word "quotas" in attacking affirmative action programs at the University of Michigan. Yet he also calls for basing affirmative action on "income and class" distinctions as well as race. He believes portions of the USA Patriot Act "overreach," but, he says, "I haven't condemned Congress for passing" the legislation. It's only natural, he explains, that the lawmakers would overreact. The problem is, he explains, that Bush has appointed right-wing judges who will not provide any counterbalance to the excesses of the politicians. Dean maintains he doesn't "believe the war on drugs is a criminal matter; it's a public health matter. To throw users in jail is silly." But he cannot stand state initiatives that seek to legalize medical marijuana. "I hate the idea of legislators and politicians practicing medicine," he says. Should the Feds be busting medical marijuana clubs? "Depends on the circumstances," he says. "In general, no." If he were President, Dean adds, he would force the Food and Drug Administration to evaluate medical marijuana, and he would be prepared to accept its findings. Regarding the Kyoto global warming treaty, he wouldn't sign it as is. He argues that the accord--since "it doesn't require the underdeveloped countries to do anything about greenhouse gases"--would "have the effect of moving the steel industry or other industries that pollute into countries where there are no requirements to improve their situation with greenhouse gasses." He wouldn't dump the treaty, as Bush did. Instead, he would continue to negotiate to make changes. He favors a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But, he says, "I don't think you can pressure the Israelis to do anything until you stop the terror." And he urges more federal spending on fighting global poverty and disease, but won't provide any sense of how much.
Dean, who comes from a family of Rockefeller Republicans, graduated from Yale in 1971, and by his own admission was "not particularly engaged" in the politics of the day. Why didn't the civil rights and antiwar movements inspire him? "The civil rights movement did," he says. "I did a lot of things on the ground on civil rights. I did some teaching. I did some tutoring. I was rooming with two African-Americans who were very active in the Black Student Alliance. It was really more a personal learning experience than a kind of political learning experience." That seems as if he is trying to score credit by association. And Vietnam? "Of course I was antiwar," Dean remarks. "But I really have a healthy mistrust of the left as well as the right. I distrust ideologues and I distrust people who find facts inconvenient. My MO has been to be in the middle. Facts matter to me a lot--probably because of my scientific training--and I didn't find it OK for people to be involved in blowing up the ROTC building at the University of Wisconsin and killing somebody who was inside, to protest the war.... I find the right wing equally as concerning. I simply don't trust the extremes on both ends." (Dean didn't serve in the military. Due to an unfused vertebra in his back, he was classified 1-Y, meaning he would only be called up in the event of a full-scale war or an emergency.)
His most-loved novel? Ken Kesey's Sometimes a Great Notion. His favorite album? "Probably a Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young album--I don't have a particular one in mind." And movie? "My most recent favorite movie is A Beautiful Mind," he says. "It was one of the very few movies in my life I have seen twice.... It was so complicated...a little bit like The Magus"--the John Fowles novel--"which was about a reality within a reality."
Dean has developed--and tries to promote--a reputation for being outspoken. At the end of his 1996 campaign for governor, he told a reporter that, sure, he provided more access to campaign contributors than to others. Would he do the same as a presidential candidate? "Well, probably," he says to me, quickly adding that he favors public financing of elections and recounting the time he turned down a request for a favor from a trucking company that had always been generous to his campaigns. ("It's true you have to listen to people who give you money in campaigns, but it's also true you don't have to do what they want.") He castigates the Bush Administration for playing racial politics and for sucking up to the religious right by removing references to condoms from the website of the Centers for Disease Control. He doesn't hide his dissatisfaction with the Democratic Party: "The problem is that we don't seem to know who we are." He decries Democrats who voted for Bush's education legislation. He clearly is hoping to be the straight-talk candidate of 2004: "Many people seem to be willing to say whatever it takes to get elected. And that's a mistake. You have to stand up for what you believe. Principle has to be more important. If it isn't, there's no excitement."
On bluntness, though, Dean doesn't always come across as McCainesque. An example of less-than-straight talk: Dean often brags about his A rating from the NRA. But when asked whether he considers the gun lobby a positive social force, rather than answering the query directly he outlines his own gun policy: Maintain the assault weapons ban, keep the Brady Bill's waiting period for gun purchases, close the gun-show loopholes and then permit states "to make as much or as little gun law as they need." And what of the NRA? "In Vermont," he says, "the NRA was very helpful" in his effort to conserve hundreds of thousands of acres of land. But what does Dean think of an NRA that has opposed the few gun-control measures he supports? Dean won't say a bad word about the organization.
Dean assails certain Democrats for taking a stand on the Iraq war in order "to position themselves for the upcoming presidential race." Like whom? "We're not going to get into names," he says, but it's clear he means Senator John Kerry. In talking about the institutional corruption in government, he says, "You see it in both parties. Our accounting standards were not what they should be, because of one of the people running for President." Is that a reference to Senator Joseph Lieberman? "I don't use names at this stage of the game," he says. "It's too early." Who was at fault for the Hillarycare disaster? "It got too complicated and got to be a big mess that nobody could understand," Dean says. But, he adds, "I don't blame Hillary for that." Why not? Could it be because, within Democratic circles, she is now an influential and widely admired senator? Ask him to suggest someone who would make a good attorney general, and he refuses. There are, he asserts, plenty of "moderate, thoughtful people" from which to choose. For Supreme Court Justices, he would look for "thoughtful, middle-of-the-road" jurists. "I can tell you," he says, "it would not be a member of the [conservative] Federalist Society."
Dean's detractors in Vermont brand him as imperious, thin-skinned. Do they have a case? I ask him. "I want results and I am impatient with process," Dean replies. "The good thing about being a doctor is that you are results-oriented.... Facts are very important. I used to be against needle-exchange programs, because I thought they might spread addiction.... Then the Yale studies came out around 1993 and 1994, and I changed my position almost overnight.... Sometimes I get impatient with emotional arguments that are not based on anything. I like to cut to the chase."
Dean is not overly polished (which might be a plus), hardly an imposing or commanding figure (which is not). Brusque? He does have a doctor's that's-the-way-it-is manner. He's no charmer. But he is smart and sharp, and can exude a cool passion. And he's trying to cut a path for himself as an ideals-driven, angry but reasonable and rational, middle-loving, just-the-facts message-candidate who embraces pragmatism--one who takes on Bush Inc. for its warmongering and out-of-whack domestic priorities (though his candidacy, as of now, is far more defined by his war opposition than his other stands--which means he has a lot riding on whatever happens in Gulf War II). He's also a Democrat who bemoans his own party for its general wimpiness, rightward drift and inability to kick Bush squarely in the teeth. With these themes, he may well have an appeal for die-hard Democrats not put off by his lack of national standing or his more cerebral than charismatic political stylings. Yet he is a message candidate who recoils from ideological politics. "I don't really consider myself a progressive," Dean remarks, "though by national standards maybe I am.... I'm determined to change America. We are heading in the wrong direction." And if he has to sound (mostly) like a liberal to accomplish such change, so be it.