Meet The Nation: Howard Dean

Meet The Nation: Howard Dean

Seen as the antiwar candidate, he shies away from being called a liberal.


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.”

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.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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