Good Doctor

by Jonathan Cohn | July 28, 2003

When the history of this presidential campaign is written, one of the best chapters will be about how Howard Dean beat Tim Russert. It was roughly a month ago that Dean appeared as Russert's guest on NBC's "Meet the Press," and, by the time Dean was through absorbing Russert's jabs, he looked decidedly less than presidential. When asked about the balanced-budget amendment and the bipartisan proposal for Medicare drug coverage, Dean seemed to waffle. When asked to name the number of troops serving in the active military, Dean could muster only a vague guess. When Dean suggested his proposal to repeal the Bush tax cuts would leave people better off, Russert challenged that assertion with figures suggesting otherwise. Although Dean's answers were better than Russert would admit--Russert's tax figures were misleading, among other things--Dean's unsteady delivery and body language suggested a man out of his league, prompting the press (myself included) to pan the appearance. An editorial in The Washington Post said Dean's performance "was, to put it charitably, less than impressive." On cnbc's "Hardball," Mike Barnicle described for viewers "the sound and the sight of a man crashing his candidacy into a bridge abutment, " while, the on Fox News Channel, Fortune's Jeff Birnbaum rendered an even more unequivocal verdict: "Dean's star has risen and fallen."It seemed like a reasonable bet, particularly given what happened to the last Democratic candidate who stumbled so badly through a Russert interview. Prior to his own "Meet the Press" appearance a year ago, Senator John Edwards had been the Democratic Party's golden boy, with insiders swooning over his smarts, political talent, and Southern pedigree. But, after Edwards spent an interview evading questions and groping to articulate his own positions, pundits and party elders dumped all over him, with Bill Clinton reportedly advising him to bone up on policy before going public again. His campaign still has not fully recovered; even now, despite having raised gobs of money from his trial-lawyer friends, his poll numbers in key states remain mired in single digits. But Dean's candidacy took a very different turn after his "Meet the Press" debacle. While the other Democratic candidates had spent the last few months auditioning for party elites, Dean had been busy auditioning for actual voters-- and winning them over. He had amassed an army of supporters, thousands strong, who frankly didn't care what Russert thought. Donations to Dean's website actually increased after the show, and, on the very next Tuesday, more than 30, 000 people participated in Dean's formal announcement ceremony--most of them scattered across the country in simultaneous meetings arranged via the Internet. A few days later, Dean stunned the political universe by announcing he had already raised more than $6 million during the second quarter of 2003, more than any other candidate. That produced yet another spike in donations--this time, an astonishing $800,000 in one day. While this feat won Dean the respect of his critics--a few reporters even started calling him the front-runner--it hardly silenced them. If anything, they grew more hysterical about where Dean's left-wing, antiwar candidacy might take the party. "If somebody doesn't stop Howard Dean," warned pollster and columnist Dick Morris, "he and his ideas will be permanent plagues on the Democratic Party." Even those more sympathetic to Dean's beliefs expressed serious qualms, convinced he could never beat President Bush in the general election. "If the Democrats nominate him as their presidential candidate," my colleague John B. Judis wrote recently on Salon.com, "he is almost sure to lose to George W. Bush, and perhaps by a very large margin." But Dean's critics are either misrepresenting his positions, underestimating his skill as a campaigner, or both. Dean is no left-wing radical, and, while his competition has made little headway with the public--nearly every other major candidate's support has stagnated or fallen in the last year--Dean has gone from obscurity to the top tier. This is testimony to his considerable potential as a candidate and, when coupled with his governing record, suggestive of his abilities as a potential president. It's far too early to say whether Dean is the best in the Democratic field. But it's also too early to say he isn't. The least convincing of the Dean critiques is also the most common: that he is a liberal extremist pandering to left-wing activists and leading the party toward electoral disaster. This critique, muttered frequently by Dean's opponents, took off when the centrist Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) issued a blistering memo in May describing Dean and his supporters as "the McGovern-Mondale wing, defined principally by weakness abroad and elitist, interest-group liberalism at home. That's the wing that lost 49 states in two elections, and transformed Democrats from a strong national party into a much weaker regional one." But there's a problem with this description: It directly contradicts Dean's record as a moderate, fiscally disciplined governor. Vermont alone among the states has no constitutional requirement for balanced budgets--a situation the state's liberals had exploited, running up huge deficits by the time Dean took over. But Dean emphatically insisted on reducing those deficits until the budget was balanced. When that was done, he paid down debt and salted money away in a rainy-day fund, thereby insulating the state from the kind of draconian budget cuts the rest of the nation is enduring these days. And that wasn't the only way he annoyed Vermont liberals: In an effort to boost the state's economy, Dean sought partnerships with business leaders, earning high marks even from conservatives but putting off some environmentalists who thought his policies allowed too much sprawl. As Jan Backus, a former Democratic state senator, recently told the Los Angeles Times, "He kind of acted as a brake on the Democrats in the Legislature that were more to the left of him." The DLC knew this as well as anyone: In 1996, they hailed the reelection of "centrist Governor Howard Dean" as evidence "of Democratic resurgence under New Democratic leadership." Typically, elected officials running for president become less courageous once they start hunting for votes among the party faithful. But the remarkable thing about Dean is the extent to which he has stood by his centrist convictions as a candidate, frequently to his own political detriment. As The Weekly Standard, among other publications, has observed, Dean routinely warns audiences comprising teachers that he favors state flexibility--which the unions hate--over strict federal guidelines when it comes to education spending. Likewise, Dean refuses to rule out raising the retirement age in order to shore up Social Security's finances, a stance that opponents Dick Gephardt and John Kerry will almost certainly exploit as they hunt for liberal supporters of their own. Dean is so committed to fiscal discipline, in fact, that he refused to propose more than $90 billion per year in his plan for nearly universal health care. As Dean recently told a New Hampshire gathering, recounted in the Manchester Union-Leader, that means the plan "is not a Cadillac. ... We can't afford a Cadillac. But it covers everybody at a reasonable price." With Gephardt offering a more generous--if expensive--plan, such an approach could cost Dean the support of the all-important service unions, for whom health care is the top priority. So, if Dean isn't really so liberal, why do so many liberals love him? A big reason is that he seems as angry as they are--not just at President Bush but at the Democratic Party's leadership for meekly going along. Dean does have a habit of going too far--such as the time he criticized Edwards for fudging his stance on the war when Edwards had actually made his position absolutely clear-- to the point that his apologies have become as predictable as his outbursts. But, in the larger, substantive sense, Dean's attacks on the party and his rivals are absolutely right: The Democratic leadership and presidential candidates have been timid. While all the Democrats running for president voted against the Bush tax cuts, most supported less expensive alternatives. And it wasn't until the last few months that any of them began calling for repealing the tax cuts already in place. Dean, by contrast, condemned the compromises-- and called for their repeal--almost as soon as they passed. It's this willingness to stake out a few iconoclastic positions--standing up for his more progressive views with the same determination he defends his more centrist positions--that makes liberals believe in Dean even though other candidates, such as Gephardt or Kerry, may promise them more. And, once again, it's a trait consistent with Dean's career as governor. When Dean's attempt to enact a small-scale version of the Clinton health care plan failed in 1994, he didn't give up on the issue the way the Democratic leadership in Washington did. He hammered away at it, pushing to cover more and more kids through incremental reforms--and then protecting those funds even when budgets were tight and he had to trim spending elsewhere. On the most controversial issue of his tenure, gay civil unions, Dean didn't go looking for the fight. But, when the state supreme court forced the issue by insisting that the state find a way to recognize the rights of gays, Dean announced that he would sign a civil- unions bill--a promise he fulfilled, even though it nearly cost him his political career. As Peter Shumlin, a Democratic state senator, told me last year, "[Dean] looked at us and said, 'This is the right thing to do.' ... And he knew the consequences. He knew there would be political fallout, that people would lose their jobs over it; but he knew it was the right thing to do for civil rights." If this were a normal election year, Dean's candidacy wouldn't be nearly so controversial. But, across the ideological spectrum of Democrats, the desire to oust Bush far outweighs the desire to elect a candidate who conforms to any particular person's idea of good policies or good character. That's why even would-be supporters are skittish about Dean: "I really appreciate that Howard Dean is pushing the envelope, and he's pushing the Democratic Party hard," one New Hampshire voter recently told The Washington Post's Dan Balz. But "I can't afford to be led only by my heart. I've got to be practical." And, while Dean clearly believes his centrist record and straight talk can win over skeptical moderates, party leaders such as DLC President (and TNR contributor) Bruce Reed say it's simply too late for such recasting. "Dean's about to discover the lesson that has doomed so many Democrats in the past: Once you've abandoned the center, it's hard to get back there." But how hard will it really be? One survey in New Hampshire actually shows Dean polling better among independents, and worse among Democrats, than his chief rival there, Kerry. And, just this Tuesday, it was members of the congressional Blue Dog Coalition--a group of conservative, mostly Southern Democrats--who were talking up Dean's potential after a meeting with him on Capitol Hill. "It's obvious that he's a fiscal conservative," Indiana Representative Baron Hill told msnbc's Tom Curry. "When you talk about the gun issue, he's a social conservative. When you're talking about gay rights and that sort of thing, he's not. But ... he's making some inroads, and he was impressive." Dwelling on Dean's political liabilities tends to obscure another important consideration--his considerable political assets, starting with his unique ability to eliminate, or at least mitigate, President Bush's huge fund-raising advantages. Under the old campaign finance system, Democrats largely ignored mass fund-raising, figuring the best way to stay competitive was to concentrate on large donations from wealthy financiers. Since those donations are now illegal--thanks to the McCain-Feingold campaign reforms--Democrats will need to rediscover mass fund-raising just to stay remotely competitive. Dean, of course, is the only candidate doing that already. And it's easy to see how he could parlay the contributions he has received from his existing donor base into much more money. Because he's drawing from many donors--some 80,000 at last count-- each giving small amounts of money well below the legal threshold for individual donations, he's free to approach them again for more during the primaries or the general election. (This also means Dean will have an easier time getting federal matching funds, since the federal government matches individual donations but only up to $250 per person.) It's hard to imagine any of the other Democrats inspiring such grassroots devotion. Then there is the fact that Dean--alone among the declared contenders--talks like a human being. Dean's five major rivals are lawyers by training; Dean is a doctor, and it shows. "He speaks in short sentences," says Simon Rosenberg, president of the New Democrat Network. "He's passionate. You know where he stands pretty quickly, and it's very refreshing to people." Sometimes this gets Dean into trouble, since he blurts out statements (such as the comment that he "suppose[d]" the Iraqi people were better off without Saddam Hussein) that he ends up taking back. But, more often, it strengthens one of Dean's primary claims: that he is an outsider who can shake up Washington, a line that is as effective as it is clichd. Just ask the current Oval Office occupant, who in 2000 constantly reminded voters that "I'm coming from outside Washington, and I'm the challenger candidate," or the man who preceded him, who in 1992 liked to tell audiences that "if I tried to run the government in my home state the way they do it in Washington, ... we'd be in a terrible fix." (Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan ran as outsiders, too; indeed, the only successful candidate in recent memory who didn't was Bush's father, George H.W. Bush.) None of this will matter, however, if Dean can't get past what many assume to be his biggest political liability: his opposition to the war. More than at any time in recent memory, voters will quite properly demand that presidential candidates demonstrate their ability to protect national security. That's a difficult challenge for any governor lacking foreign policy or personal military experience. Make that governor a New Englander, load him up with a few cultural positions (such as pro-civil unions) that some voters interpret as "soft," then have him oppose a war that was widely popular at the time, and what you have--it would seem--is a recipe for disaster. No Democrat with a knowledge of U.S. history should take this prospect lightly. Republicans convinced Americans that Michael Dukakis was unpatriotic just because he supported civil liberties--much as Dean now opposes the Patriot Act--and beat him resoundingly. The war George McGovern ran against was highly unpopular, yet Republicans painted him as weak and defeated him in all but one state. "We need a candidate who is credible on national security," Representative Martin Frost, a centrist Democrat from Texas, said in May. "I think Howard Dean has the appearance of being another McGovern." But that comparison overlooks one key point: The country isn't in the middle of a culture war like it was in the early '70s. A vote for McGovern back then wasn't simply a vote against the war in Vietnam. It was a vote for long hair, and drugs, and Janis Joplin, and all the other things that so offended middle-class moral sensibilities. Voting for Dean today would carry no such baggage, particularly since Dean actually opposes some of the Democrats' more extreme cultural stances (such as legalizing marijuana) while boasting a pretty conservative record on crime (favoring capital punishment in certain cases). Remember, too, that Dean is hardly the peacenik some critics (and, admittedly, some of his supporters) assume. He has pledged to send more troops into Afghanistan and Iraq; when it comes to Liberia, he's more hawkish than Joe Lieberman. Nor is Dean fundamentally suspicious of U.S. power: He says he supported every formal U.S. military action since Vietnam--including the first Gulf war--and he has said explicitly that he supports attacking a country that presents an imminent threat, as was the case in Afghanistan under the Taliban. Dean is also well-positioned--ideally positioned, in fact--to take political advantage of the revelations about the administration's mishandling of intelligence on Saddam's nuclear program (or lack thereof) and the failure to find chemical or biological weapons in Iraq. Most of Dean's rivals find themselves in the uncomfortable position of having to explain why they thought the weapons threat was real. So far, the best defense is the "I-was-duped" line- -which doesn't exactly suggest strong leadership skills. (It's particularly damning in the case of Edwards, who sits on the Intelligence Committee, since his rival and fellow committee member, Bob Graham, joined Dean in panning the weapons-of-mass-destruction argument before the war even started.) Characteristically, Dean hasn't shied away from making this point: "If I as governor of Vermont can figure out the case is not there to invade Iraq, how can three senators and a congressman ... manage to give the president unilateral authority to attack Iraq? It looks like my analysis was the correct one, and theirs was the incorrect one. It's going to be hard for them to make the case that I don't have the credentials on foreign policy after this." This aggressive self-promotion isn't always Dean's most attractive quality. But the attitude behind it--combined with his well-deserved reputation for defending even his unpopular positions strongly--could be Dean's best weapon against doubts about his national security qualifications. Voters want a president who will be tough on national security, but, as feelings about the Iraq war grow more ambivalent, they're apt to make that judgment more on gut feeling than individual policy positions. And, while you can say a lot of bad things about Dean--that he's arrogant, stubborn, even mean-spirited on occasion- -nobody who has heard or seen him could call him soft. Dean may have the intellect of a Yale-educated doctor, but he has the mentality of a Manhattan street-brawler. This week, for example, while the other candidates were hemming and hawing about "troubling" intelligence revelations, Dean called outright for administration officials who'd misled the president to resign. And, while Dean's rivals insist this attitude is a liability--"angry men don't typically win national political races," Kerry campaign adviser Jim Jordan has sniped-- others see it as a source of strength. "Dean has done a very good job of positioning himself as a strong leader," says Rosenberg. "He's willing to take on a fight, he's willing to mix it up, and he's clearly willing to fight for what he believes in." Strange as it sounds, then, the same pugnacity that makes Dean a hero to doves might ultimately make him tolerable to hawks, too. To be sure, convincing the voters you would make a good commander-in-chief isn't the same as being a good commander-in-chief. And, on this important question, we really haven't seen enough of Dean to know whether he would. But the former Vermont governor has certainly earned the right to prove he's up to the job. After all, he has spent his entire career--and most of the last few months--disproving those who underestimated him. There's no reason to believe he'll stop now.

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