Moral Center

By

When I first interviewed Howard Dean in early 2002, the Iraq war was
still a glint in Dick Cheney's eye, nobody had heard of Meetup.com,
and Dean's campaign organization numbered all of one. Beyond
Vermont, he was virtually unknown: As we walked through downtown
Boston, not a soul recognized him. He was also a more simple
character then--just another earnest public servant embarking on a
long-shot bid for the White House. Dean had been charming: blunt,
as always, but in a disarming, comical way. Eventually I wrote a
piece touting his strong record and provocative critique of
President Bush. Then I predicted his lack of money and notoriety
would doom him to obscurity.OK, so I got that last part wrong. Did I also exaggerate his
virtues? Every week seems to expose new political liabilities and
gaps in Dean's resum. At times, he has been more angry than funny,
more messianic than inspiring-- basically, as unrecognizable to me
as he was to those Bostonians we passed on the streets. But Dean
has also proved more resourceful than I ever imagined. And the
fundamental rationales for his candidacy--his accomplishments in
Vermont and proposals for the United States--are as compelling today
as they were two years ago. They're just a lot harder to see.

When Dean became governor in 1991, Vermont had a $65 million deficit
and New England's lowest bond rating. Arguing that such conditions
would starve the state of its ability to help citizens in need and
scare away employers, Dean made responsible fiscal management his
first order of business, reducing spending and taxes. This allowed
him to eliminate the deficit within three years and then build up a
rainy-day fund. Today, Vermont has New England's highest bond
rating. And, virtually alone among states, it has avoided draconian
cuts in its social programs--by tapping Dean's surpluses.

Those results haven't always mollified Dean's critics on the left,
who wanted him to be less accommodating to big business and less
thrifty with the state's money. But Dean was just as headstrong
when it came to pursuing the goals he did share with
liberals--expanding health insurance and social services for
low-income children. Under Dean, Vermont plowed money into its
Medicaid program, broadening eligibility to include working
families--families too poor to afford insurance but too well-off to
qualify for assistance under the old Medicaid guidelines. As a
result, nearly every child in Vermont now has health insurance. A
less well-known--but in many ways more innovative--policy triumph
of the Dean years was the enactment of "Success by Six." That
program offers the parents of newborns home visits from local
social workers, who can advise on everything from what you should
feed your baby to whom you call if you think you qualify for
government assistance. Nine in ten Vermont parents opt for the
visits, and state officials say the program helps identify problem
cases--like cases of physical abuse--in their early stages.

These successes are why no less an authority than Bill Clinton has
said, "Nobody did a better job on health care than [Dean] did as
governor of Vermont. " Implicit in that quote is what really set
Dean apart as a governor: Not only does he have the right
priorities; he has the right character. In 1991, it would have been
far easier to let Vermont's Democrat-controlled legislature run
wild with spending, as it had in the past. But, despite having
virtually no political capital to spend--as lieutenant governor,
he'd inherited the governorship after his Republican predecessor
died--Dean held firm on fiscal policy and won. Similarly, after
Dean tried and failed to enact a sweeping health care reform along
the lines of what Clinton had proposed for the nation, it would
have been far easier to give up and concentrate on narrow, easy-to-
pass measures like HMO reform. Instead, Dean kept pursuing universal
coverage through incremental expansions and nearly got it.

Dean showed the same fortitude in the most controversial episode of
his tenure, the fight over gay rights. In 1999, the Vermont Supreme
Court declared that it was unconstitutional to deny gay couples the
same rights as married heterosexual couples, ordering the
legislature to pass a remedy. Although Dean had not sought this
fight, he didn't shrink from it, either. Within hours, Dean
announced his support for "civil unions," granting gay couples
marriage rights without actually calling it marriage. Some state
legislators would later suggest putting off a vote by calling for
"further study." But, according to Vermont journalist Mark Bushnell
in Howard Dean: A Citizen's Guide to the Man Who Would be
President, Dean urged them to press ahead, telling one legislator
that delay might endanger the measure's passage. "This is something
we need to do, and we need to do it as fast as we can." Dean is no
saint: He refused to hold a public signing ceremony, likely because
it would have given his political opponents fodder. But,
nonetheless, Dean took real risks by backing a civil-unions
bill--and not only to his career: In 2000, he got so many death
threats that the state police asked him to wear a bulletproof vest
at campaign appearances.

To be fair, the problem for most Dean critics isn't his record--it's
that his famously radical campaign seems like such a departure from
that record. But just what, exactly, is so new about Dean on the
stump? It's certainly not his proposed domestic policies. Much like
Vermont in 1991, the United States in 2004 faces two urgent
domestic problems: out-of-control deficits and a growing population
with no health insurance. As governor, Dean's answer was to end the
legislature's profligacy--which meant reining in spending--and to
tell the people they'd be better off with sound financial
management. As president, Dean would do the same--only, this time,
ending Congress's profligacy would mean repealing the Bush tax
cuts. Having accomplished that, Dean would pivot in exactly the way
he did as governor, using some of the government's money to help
the uninsured. His reform plan? A series of incremental steps
modeled--you guessed it--on the programs that worked so well in
Vermont.

Admittedly, raising taxes can be dangerous politically. But put that
aside for a moment and ask the question surprisingly few Dean
critics ever pose: Do these moves make sense as policy? Absolutely.
There was a case for tax cuts while the economy was in recession,
but only temporary and targeted ones, which is precisely what the
Bush tax cuts are not. By returning the tax code to what it was
while Clinton was president--it hardly seems heretical when you put
it that way--Dean would reduce the deficit and put the government
on track to do what it did during the later Clinton years: paying
down the debt and thereby freeing up money in the federal budget to
cover the baby-boomers' impending retirement expenses.

Dean's critics insist that it's worth preserving certain elements of
the Bush tax cut--most important, a child tax credit worth up to
$2,000 for a middle-class family with two children. But, as Dean
has rightly pointed out, it's not like every hardworking taxpayer
in the United States is getting a $2, 000 check from the government
this year; for the majority of Americans, the tax break is just a
few hundred dollars. And, while struggling families can certainly
use the money, the proper question is what they would get if they
didn't have that tax break. The answer is that they'd get better
access to health insurance, better public schools, better homeland
defense, and better retirement programs--public goods that
individuals can't buy on their own.

None of this is to say Dean has not transformed himself; it's just
that, at this point, the transformation has more to do with
rhetoric than policy. A man who spent his career in state politics
fighting liberals in his party is now championing the "Democratic
wing of the Democratic Party." In Vermont, Dean was popular in the
business community because he made deals with them that alienated
the state's environmentalists. Now, on the campaign trail, Dean
rails against business and quipped in one interview that it's time
to "reregulate" U. S. industry. As governor, Dean governed like
Clinton--only to pronounce, in a recent, high-profile policy
speech, that it was time to get past the "damage control" of the
Clinton years.

But, however politically convenient in the Democratic primaries,
those statements represent a logical updating of Clintonism rather
than a rejection of it. For one thing, a primary rationale for
Clintonism was to restore faith in government so future Democrats
could put it to good use. As Clinton himself suggested in a
November 2003 interview with The American Prospect's Michael
Tomasky, "Democrats ought to all pocket some of the gains I made."
More important, Dean's modest departures make perfect sense given
what has happened in the last few years. After all, what sane
person familiar with Enron and other corporate scandals wouldn't
argue for increasing the regulation of business?

Besides, after three years of President Bush, it would take a great
deal of "reregulation" just to restore corporate accountability to
its Clinton-era levels. As Fast Food Nation author Eric Schlosser
pointed out recently in The New York Times, the Bush administration
official assuring the country about the safety of the nation's beef
supply last week was none other than a former beef- industry
lobbyist. And that's just one example of how far Bush has moved
politics to the right. Undermining Social Security to finance tax
cuts for the wealthy, turning Medicare into a voucher program,
subjecting regulations to cost-benefit analyses that favor
industry--these ideas were all dismissed as radically conservative
when Newt Gingrich included them in the Contract With America. Now
they are law or on the way to becoming it. In other words, Dean's
not the extremist. Bush is.

For all their attendant controversy, Dean's pronouncements on
foreign policy fall into the same category: They seem radical only
if the policies of the Bush administration count as mainstream,
which they aren't. True, the case for a radical departure in
foreign policy is greater than in domestic policy: Our
understanding of the world really did change on September 11, 2001.
But the question is not whether the United States should adapt to
the post-September 11 world, but how--and here Dean's vision is
more sensible than his angry tones might imply. Dean is certainly
prepared to use military force to defend U.S. interests: He says he
supported every major U.S. foreign policy intervention since
Vietnam except the Iraq war. (That includes the first Gulf war, a
conflict Dick Gephardt and John Kerry opposed.) Dean's caricature as
a peacenik is a product mostly of the fallacious argument that
opposing the Iraq war was tantamount to always opposing the use of
U.S. power abroad. In fact, it is perfectly reasonable to believe
there are occasions for unilateral action while holding that
ousting Saddam Hussein was not one of them--just as it is possible
to argue that fighting Saddam soaked up resources that might have
been spent pursuing Osama bin Laden or fortifying homeland
security, both more essential to fighting terrorism. Dean has said
all of these things.

A more valid criticism of Dean is that his interest in foreign
policy just hasn't seemed that serious. But foreign policy is the
one area where presidents- -particularly those who were
governors--reliably evolve. What's more important is a candidate's
intelligence and leadership instincts, and here Dean has acquitted
himself well. He showed far better judgment than his more seasoned
Democratic opponents when he argued, in fall 2002, that Saddam's
weapons weren't nearly the threat that Bush insisted they were.
Dean's rivals could have been forgiven for accepting the
administration's intelligence ruse if they had given the matter
careful consideration. But, in the weeks leading up to the war
vote, most Democrats were not interested in the kind of
congressional scrutiny Iraq deserved; they were more interested in
expediting a vote so it didn't interfere with the congressional
elections. If willingness to insulate national security questions
from politics is among the most essential qualities of a
commander-in-chief, then Dean's claim to that characteristic seems,
if anything, stronger than his rivals.

Alas, for many Democrats it is Dean's electability--not his
principles or policies--that keeps them awake at night. They think
Dean will come off as too liberal, too Northern, too secular, too
arrogant, too impulsive, and/or too inconsistent to win in a
general election against Bush. Make no mistake: Many of these
political liabilities are real. Right or wrong, Dean's position on
the war still puts him at odds with the majority of voters. Nobody
likes paying more taxes. And, while his repeated vows to woo white
working-class voters by avoiding "abortion, guns, and God" suggest
he's at least cognizant of his regional problem, the very existence
of such statements suggests the difficulty of a solution. A
candidate at ease with Southern voters wouldn't have to announce
his intentions of communicating. He would just communicate.

But the case for Dean needn't be that his liabilities are
nonexistent; it is that, relative to his rivals, Dean's assets are
stronger than his liabilities. Geographically speaking, the South
may be a lost cause for any Democrat. But, between his fluent
Spanish and popularity with high-tech workers, Dean could have
unusually strong appeal in the Southwest and Pacific Northwest;
polls already show he is popular in these areas. Along with Kerry,
Dean is the only Democratic candidate to refuse campaign matching
funds from the federal government, which means he can raise and
spend money after the primaries--in the months-long interregnum
while Bush is spending the $200 million or so he'll raise for that
purpose.

Then there are the legions of supporters, many of them young, new
voters, who Dean brings to his cause. Dean's absence from the
ticket wouldn't lead these people to support Bush, but it likely
means they wouldn't donate money or their time--no matter how hard
Dean exhorts them. Given the way Dean and his campaign Svengali,
Joe Trippi, have revolutionized politics by their use of the
Internet, it's at least possible that they could turn 2004 into one
of those rare, once-in-a-lifetime elections that witnesses a mass
influx of new voters (like 1828 or 1936). But you don't have to
believe in such far-fetched scenarios to see how Dean's unique
organizational strength--hundreds if not thousands of groups of
Dean supporters, who meet via the Internet--could bring in a few
thousand extra votes here and there, tipping a close election.

Dean critics dismiss the power of Dean's activists; in this
weekend's debate, for example, Joe Lieberman pleaded for a
"center-out" coalition. But, in the real world, that's not how
politics works. Moderates aren't the ones who man the phones or
walk the precincts or start their own Web logs--they're not
passionate enough to devote the time. It's the activists who do
that, which is why alienating them is every bit as self-destructive
as letting them take charge. The key is finding some middle ground,
and that's the beauty of the Dean campaign, as my colleague Noam
Scheiber has observed: Dean has won over Democratic activists more
with tone than substance. He has tapped radical energy without
committing the party to a radical agenda. In fact, Dean may yet
move a bit right on taxes and foreign policy--proposing middle-class
tax relief that doesn't inflate the deficit, then attacking Bush
for neglecting homeland defense while coddling the Saudis--just as
soon as he has taken care of primary challenges from the left.

That's not to say it will be easy. Part of Dean's unorthodox appeal
is his willingness to take unpopular stands, which conveys an image
of principle. If Dean has one clear strength over his rivals, it's
that he grasps how taking occasional risks--saying something
controversial or attempting to lead public opinion rather than
follow it--can be a more viable political strategy than trying
desperately never to stray far from majority views. But running as
a "straight-talk" candidate carries its own hazards. More than most
candidates, Dean can ill afford to seem transparently political.
What's more, because of Dean's self-professed honesty, the media is
growing obsessed with trivial rhetorical contradictions, which Dean
makes almost daily. Plus, the whole argument rests on the
assumption that voters will overlook modest differences in policy
for a leader they like and trust. It has certainly worked that way
for other candidates--most recently, Bush in 2000--but it remains to
be seen whether Dean's bedside manner has the same appeal.

Then again, no Democrat in this race has an easy path to victory in
November. Perhaps that's why a new Time/CNN poll actually showed
Dean running the closest to Bush of any Democrat, losing by just
six points--51 to 46. A few weeks ago, Republican strategist Vin
Weber offered this assessment of Dean: He seems like the easiest to
beat on paper, but he is also the biggest wild card. That's about
right. If Dean has the most potential to lose big, he also has the
most potential to shake up the race and pull an upset. That's not a
reason to vote for him, perhaps, but it's also not a reason to vote
against him-- particularly if his case is otherwise strong. And it
is.

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