Meet Howard Dean

Could he mobilize progressives to oust Bush in 2004?

BY David Moberg

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The tables were nearly filled in the back room of the Uptown Cafe, even before 9 o’clock on a Saturday morning in May. Local Democrats had gathered to begin their long process of sizing up presidential candidates before the statewide caucus next January.

Up front sat 93-year-old Francis Cudahy, a greatly respected local lawyer and party leader known in this neck of the prairie as “Mr. Democrat.” He was upset with Bush’s war in Iraq, which he saw as an attempt to “impose our philosophy on the rest of the world.” Though Bush started the war, in theory, to get rid of weapons of mass destruction, Cudahy said, now they can’t be found. “What justification do we have for being over there?” he demands.

Across the table, Mary Garst (of the prominent Iowa seed corn family), decried not only the “horrifying arrogance” of Bush’s foreign policy but also his “terrible” tax cut plan. “First, the rationale for it is crazy,” she says, “but for God’s sake, not for the rich people.”

They were so far uncommitted to any candidate, but judging from their remarks they were primed for the message Howard Dean, the 54-year-old physician and governor of Vermont for the past 12 years, was about to deliver. Dean attacked Bush for both the war and the tax cuts, as well as those Democrats who failed to resist the administration. He got a solid applause from this crowd of 40 people gathered at the Uptown when he told them, “This party needs some backbone. I can’t tell you how many Democrats I talk to who are as mad at the Democrats as at the Republicans.”

In a standard campaign refrain, Dean claims to represent “the Democratic wing of the Democratic party,” very occasionally giving a nod to the phrase’s originator, the late Sen. Paul Wellstone. Dean, as even he acknowledges, isn’t exactly a Paul Wellstone: He lacks Wellstone’s coherent vision, close identification with popular movements, and populist passion. But Dean is an increasingly viable candidate who offers much to please Wellstone supporters.

Hardly the sole advocate of progressive views, Dean comes across as an intelligent, affable and knowledgeable candidate with a fresh face but enough experience to have political credibility. Dean tries to convey the technical assuredness of a New England doctor prescribing the proper remedies. “The doctor is in,” his posters announce in the cafes of Iowa.

Dean campaigns as a pro-union environmentalist and sustainable energy enthusiast who will enact a plan to guarantee health insurance for everyone (paid for by rolling back most Bush tax cuts), adopt a more internationalist foreign policy, and insist that international trade agreements enforce labor and environmental protections. But he also takes positions that might make some Wellstone fans uncomfortable. He makes balancing the budget the centerpiece of his economic policy, argues that single-payer national health insurance can’t be passed, and identifies more closely with Clinton’s foreign policy than many progressives would like.

The hawkish, pro-corporate Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) was off the mark—both in its reading of history and its mean-spirited rhetoric—when it recently singled out Dean as representing “weakness abroad and elitist, interest-group liberalism at home.”

Dean supported the war in Afghanistan but argues against the Bush doctrine of pre-emptive war. He put it this way: Bush’s “foreign policy is, ‘Get out of my way or I’ll see you after school in the parking lot.’ We’re the most feared country in the world, but we’re not the most respected, and that’s something we have to change.”

Real American strength, Dean says, comes from internationalist cooperation on matters such as terrorism, global warming, raising living standards, and bringing greater democracy to the poor countries of the world (whose debts need to be forgiven as much for American security interests as for their own economic growth). Domestically, he proposes a safety net for the “middle class” as well as the poor, guaranteeing that health care, education and affordable housing are available for everyone. That’s hardly an “elitist” program, but the DLC attack may reflect the rising political fortunes of this previously little-known governor from the next-to-least most populous state. In one early New Hampshire poll, Dean is tied with Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts for the lead, and he is making a strong showing in Iowa, where he has visited more than 30 times already and has a strong staff.

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Dean describes himself as an anti-ideological pragmatist. “I’m not an ideologue,” he said in an interview with In These Times. “I think the great problem with this president is that his is an ideological administration. Facts don’t matter to them. I’m a complete pragmatist. I really believe that people who have ideologies that can’t be bent and are insensitive to the facts can’t govern.” He offers an example of his pragmatism. “I used to oppose needle exchange programs [for intravenous drug users], but a Yale study came out that showed very clearly that HIV/AIDS transmission dropped significantly among addicts, and there was not a particularly significant increase in use of heroin. So I changed my position the next day.” He now favors treating drug addiction as a public health problem, not a crime. And when the Vermont Supreme Court forced the issue on him, Dean as governor bucked an ardent right-wing opposition to help pass a state law providing civil unions for gays.

In contrast to the Bush administration, which makes lying a central strategy in pursuit of right-wing objectives, a respect for facts is refreshing. However, Dean’s pragmatism sometimes sounds uncomfortably like Michael Dukakis’ failed political gambit of promoting “competence” over ideology.

Dean makes a great deal of his record of balancing budgets in Vermont, where he was often at odds with Democratic legislators over spending. He claims to have left the state in better fiscal shape to protect social programs during the current lean times. In the same vein, he makes budget-balancing the heart of his federal economic policy. That strategy, especially at the federal level, risks exacerbating an economic downturn. Dean says that he would have been willing to run “small deficits” as the economy slumped in 2001, but not exacerbate them with Bush-style tax cuts, most of which he would reverse.

While shunning the standard Keynesian prescription of countering business cycle slumps with budget deficits, Dean argues that the federal government economic stimulus should emphasize investments in infrastructure—expanding broadband communications in rural areas or promoting alternative energy (including wind power)—that continue to generate benefits long after the temporary stimulus effect. In order to encourage public investment, he would maintain separate federal budgets for operating expenses and capital spending. Apart from the relative policy merits of his budget ideas, however, it’s not clear that running on balanced budgeting packs much political wallop.

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The issue of corporate power is central for any Democratic candidate. In recent decades, corporations have gained influence while people have lost both power on the job and economic security. While Dean doesn’t take on corporations with the rhetorical fire of a Dennis Kucinich, he favors tougher corporate regulation, a reduction in corporate subsidies, penalizing companies that move headquarters overseas, and rolling back the ongoing deregulation of the telecommunications industry (a need that that Dean says he realized when broadcasters blacklisted the Dixie Chicks for criticizing Bush). On the other hand, Dean wants government to do more to help small businesses: He says it’s to promote job growth, but it is also politically smart.

More significantly, Dean—along with Kucinich and Dick Gephardt—strongly advocates making it easier for workers to organize unions, both at home and abroad. “I’ve recently concluded that we ought to allow card check in this country,” Dean says, referring to employer recognition of a union simply when a majority of workers sign membership cards. “It’s the only way to unionize places that pay substandard wages that you can’t support a family on.”

Dean embraces unions as vehicles for bringing poor workers into the middle class. “My attitude toward unions is, at a time when the gap between rich and poor is getting bigger and bigger, at a time when the unions in my view have been much more responsible than they were in the ’70s and ’80s when they were mostly interested in protecting high-wage industrial jobs, they’ve really gone out of their way to recruit the people who need the help the most,” he says.

Dean rejects privatizing social security, and he argues that the federal government should give refundable tax credits to low-income workers to invest for their retirement. He also proposes drastically revamping the existing pension system. “Pensions shouldn’t be controlled by corporations,” he says. “They should be independent, controlled by trustees. Corporations would appoint half of them, and labor would appoint half of them.” This would keep corporations from looting pensions, and workers could remain in the same independent pension fund as they change jobs.

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Although Dean embraces trade, he maintains that trade agreements need to be rewritten to include labor rights, both to protect American workers’ jobs and to promote American defense and international security. “Yes, I like trade,” he says. “Trade is very, very good for the world. It’s a great part of our defense policy to develop middle-class countries in other parts of the world. Those countries don’t go to war with each other, they don’t attack us, they don’t harbor groups like al-Qaeda. It’s a defense issue. My position is, if it’s okay for General Motors to send their plant from Dearborn to Matamoros, then it’s okay to send the UAW down to organize that plant.”

“We need to hook up human rights and trade, environmental standards and trade, by making it a condition of any trade agreement, existing or in the future, that labor standards and environmental standards are put in the agreement and are enforceable in the same way as other violations of trade are enforceable,” Dean says. “We could file a claim if there were child labor violations in another country we were doing business with, or overtime violations, or safety violations.”

Despite his criticism of corporate behavior, Dean rejects the rhetoric of “class warfare.” “I think it’s less productive to worry about how much rich people have than to worry about how much middle-class and working people have,” he says. “I believe that as long as rich people are around, they’ll find ways to get around the rules other people have to follow. That’s one of the costs of living in a capitalist system. The thing to do is concentrate on the 90 percent of people who don’t have what they need and make sure they have it, and not worry about the people who make $500,000 a year. Of course, it’s obscene, but so what?”

“Rather than attacking executive salaries, which I do agree are a real problem, I want to build a middle-class safety net, so that people in the middle class in this country can be sure they’ll have health insurance, can be sure they’ll have opportunities for their kids to go to college,” he says. Beyond raising the minimum wage, he’d expand fringe benefits subsidized by government, much as he did to some degree in Vermont, including expanded child care, affordable housing, and health insurance.

Although at least four candidates have health insurance proposals, Dean’s plan—a central focus of his campaign—is based on his experience in Vermont, where he raised the percentage of Vermonters covered by health insurance from 87.3 percent to 91 percent. He would greatly expand the federal Children’s Health Insurance Program for low-income children (extending it to include parents), provide prescription drug coverage through Medicare, and make health insurance more widely available and affordable for individuals and small employers through a subsidized version of the federal employee health insurance plan.

Kucinich has proposed a universal single-payer system of Medicare. But the plans from Dean, Kerry and Gephardt are all complex programs to subsidize private health insurance. They fail to remove the biggest cost problem: private insurance overhead, profits and inefficiencies. Dean claims that his plan expands coverage as much as Gephardt’s but at slightly more than one-third the cost of Gephardt’s proposal. He says that overwhelming corporate opposition will kill any single-payer plan. But Dean argues—and polls concur—that given a choice between tax cuts and guaranteed health insurance, most voters will choose health care.

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Polls also suggest that Dean’s stance against the war may help him. It’s unclear, Dean argues, whether six months from now Iraq will be peaceful or in tumult against U.S. occupation. In any case, the issue will be a wash politically, he thinks. “People don’t believe that being against the war in Iraq is as Joe [Lieberman] says, a tendency to be weak on defense. The Dean doctrine would be very clear. We have a right to defend ourselves against an immediate threat, an imminent threat. But we don’t have a right to engage in preventive war without an immediate threat being established.” In late April, a survey by the Program on International Policy Attitudes showed that more than 75 percent of Americans favored the United States cooperating with other countries to solve problems. These majorities are closer to the position of Democrats like Dean than to Bush or his Democratic apologists.

Dean’s opposition to the war sets him apart from the supposed frontrunners in the race and from Bush, but on international issues he relies heavily on both Clinton-era advisors and policies like “Drug War” aid to Colombia’s government.

Out on the hustings, Dean scores points by faulting Bush’s attention to real matters of homeland security. And his measured explanation of why he opposed the war in Iraq gets a respectful listen even from Democrats who supported the war.

Sitting at the same table with Garst and Cudahy, Duane Mosher, a veteran of both Vietnam and Desert Storm who is now a UAW member working at a washing machine factory near Jefferson, says that he supported the war in Iraq but liked Dean’s speech, including the candidate’s explanation of why he opposed the war. Gast and Cudahy, more closely aligned with Dean’s war views, were impressed in an understated Midwestern fashion. “What do you think?” Mary Garst asks, leaning across the table at the close of Dean’s talk. “He’s pretty good.” Mr. Democrat nods. “I think so.”

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David Moberg, a senior editor of In These Times, has been on the staff of the magazine since it began publishing in 1976. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He has received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy. He can be reached at davidmoberg@inthesetimes.com.

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