Meet The Nation: Howard Dean
Over the next few months, Washington editor David Corn will sit down with Democratic presidential candidates and question them on their views, their records, their policy proposals and their lives. The tapes of these sessions will air on RadioNation, heard weekly on stations around the country. This is the first in the series. --The Editors
Howard Dean, it seems, is an unintentional liberal. The former governor of Vermont and current Democratic presidential contender is sitting at a table in a Washington hotel room--as Democratic governors, in town for a convention, pop in and out--trying to make the point that a fellow who was the enemy of progressives in his home state could still be something of a progressive champion as a national candidate. Last May, Dean, who was the Green Mountain State's chief executive for eleven years (winning election five times), became the first Democrat to declare he would seek his party's presidential nomination. Since then, this 54-year-old stockbroker turned doctor, hailing from a ritzy New York family, has for political handicappers become the sleeper candidate to watch. He established himself as the antiwar candidate before others with similar convictions joined the pack. He repeatedly blasts the Democratic Party for having lost its edge (if not its soul), and he has urged health insurance for all and a rollback--not just a freeze--in the Bush tax cuts. He cites as frontline qualifications his expansion of a state program guaranteeing health insurance for all Vermont children under 18 and his signing of legislation that established civil unions for gays and lesbians. Antiwar, favoring universal healthcare, trashing Bushonomics--is Dean shaping up as a hope for unreconstructed liberals? It's not that simple. And he admits it.
During an interview, Dean acknowledges that he battled fiercely with the Progressive Party of Vermont. In fact, he's even boasted, "The Progressives hate me because they're all big liberals and I'm not, and I've stopped them on many occasions." What has Dean stopped them from doing? "Raising taxes, mainly," he says. "We believe that balanced budgets are important.... 'Progressive' in Vermont means something different than it does nationally. We are a pretty liberal state. It's not entirely out of keeping that I'm one of the more progressive people in the [presidential] race while still being a moderate at home, because if you believe in a balanced budget, that automatically disqualifies you from being a progressive [in Vermont]. And I think at the national level, that's not true." (Progressives in Vermont have criticized Dean for not pushing for a universal state-run healthcare program, for not providing sufficient financial support to state colleges, for underfunding the Agency of Natural Resources and for too often compromising with developers. In 2000 the Progressives ran a candidate against Dean, and their nominee attracted 9.5 percent of the vote--almost enough to cost Dean the election.)
On the stump, Dean has received the most notice for left-of-center stances: his antiwar position and his call for healthcare coverage for all. But on Iraq, Dean has issued what appear to be contradictory remarks. In a February speech he denounced Bush for "focusing...on the wrong war at the wrong time," claimed that he (Dean) was "not ready to abandon a search for better answers" and called for continuing inspections "as long as there is progress toward disclosure and disarmament." But previously, Dean proclaimed that Washington should issue Iraq a sixty-day deadline to comply with the UN resolutions and if it does not, then "we will reserve our right as Americans to defend ourselves and we will go into Iraq." Then, at a Democratic National Committee meeting on February 21, he attacked the Democratic Party leadership for "supporting the President's unilateral attack on Iraq." Aren't these various lines inconsistent?
Dean doesn't concede. Instead, he spells out his position: "One, unilateral action is not appropriate unless there is an imminent threat to the United States. Two, the imminent threat would consist of Iraq's having a nuclear program or developing one or being found, credibly, giving weapons of mass destruction, such as chemical or biological weapons, to terrorists. Three, Saddam needs to be disarmed, period, whether he's an imminent threat or not. Four, the responsibility for disarming Iraq belongs right now to the UN because Saddam is an imminent threat to the region.... Unilateral action is not appropriate." That is an internally consistent position--but not a script to which he has always adhered. What would he do differently in the war on terrorism? He would "put more resources into trying to track down Osama bin Laden" (which sounds like a cheap shot, for is money the issue?), beef up the budget for homeland security and "get serious about the war for hearts and minds" by setting up "television and radio stations that appeal to the Arab populations and Islamic populations in terms of giving them straight news that is thoughtful and reasonable." (The Bush Administration has started these sorts of projects; Dean wants to accelerate them.)
On healthcare, Dean is no fan of sweeping reforms, such as the creation of a national insurance system. He tried to achieve universal coverage in his state and was beaten back, and he watched what happened to Hillarycare. So forget about it: "What I want to do is to get everyone in the system first and then we can argue about how to reform the system. And it's very simple." He would expand Medicaid to children and young adults under the age of 23, add a prescription drug benefit for the elderly within Medicare, and cover everyone in between by providing subsidies to businesses and individuals so workers could obtain health insurance "in the market." This would not be, he notes, "a big-government-run program."
How much of a subsidy? After all, Bush called for a subsidy, but it was too small to make enough of a difference to most of the uninsured. "We're working on that," Dean says. The money would come from undoing Bush's tax cuts for the wealthy. But, he explains, "this is not a Cadillac health insurance program. You can't give the same benefits you might give at IBM. If you did, why would IBM bother to give anyone health insurance?... It's a catastrophic health insurance program with first-dollar coverage for things like colonoscopies and mammograms that nobody would get if they had to pay for them. But after that, there's a big deductible." Would a national, government-run health insurance program make more sense? "Sure, it might work," he replies. "But we're not going to pass it. So why bother? I am totally pragmatically oriented.... It's like the Congress now--they're fighting about the patients' bill of rights. How ridiculous. Our party ought to be fighting for health insurance for every man, woman and child. Who cares what patients' bill of rights bill passes?" Wouldn't HMOs still dominate the healthcare landscape? "States," he answers, "have really cracked down on HMOs.... HMOs are not as hated as they once were."
Dean takes pleasure in being an odd duck--ardently pro-choice; opposed to new, federal gun control; in favor of expanding the social safety net; and fiscally conservative. He slams the Bush tax cuts for making no economic sense and for having little stimulus effect. But what would this balanced-budget hawk do to rev up the sluggish economy and help the jobless? "What we should be pushing for," he says, "is a public works situation in which we invest in water and sewers and roads and rail and airport and schools.... Why would we [Democrats] come up with an alternative tax cut when we should be coming up with public works programs if we want to stimulate the economy?" But now he's sounding like an old-time Keynesian, prime-the-pump, big-spending Democrat. Would Dean put aside his balanced-budget obsession for a spending stimulus? "I feel very strongly about balanced budgets," he replies. "We do have to do something about the economy, and at the federal level you can't slavishly adhere to a balanced budget at all times.... First things first: Get rid of the tax cuts for people making more than $300,000. If jobs are still a problem, you have to look at the infrastructure. If the economy is turning around, then you can look at balancing the budget. But healthcare is the biggest priority after the budget."