Is Howard Dean Really a Progressive?
Or Does He Just Play One on TV?
Howard Dean, a physician who was Governor of Vermont from 1991 until January of this year, has become the progressives' darling in the Democratic presidential primary. Take for example the June 24 pre-primary contest held by MoveOn.org, a progressive online community. When the more than 300,000 votes cast by MoveOn members were tallied, Dean lead with 44 percent. Congressman Dennis Kucinich of Ohio came in a distant second, with 24 percent of the vote. None of the nine candidates won a majority, meaning Dean will probably have to face Kucinich in a run-off this fall before he can secure MoveOn's endorsement (and PAC money). Still, Dean's showing proves that he is currently the most attractive candidate to progressive Democrats.
Like Kucinich, Dean is a dark horse candidate, but his campaign has far more momentum for four reasons.
Where's the Beef?
None of this, of course, has anything to do with actual policy. Dean's appeal is more about style than issues. "When describing their conversion into Dean supporters," Franke-Ruta continues, "many sound as though they're talking about love at first sight rather than arriving at a conscious political decision." He quotes a former Pentagon employee who said, "I watched [Dean] speaking on C-SPAN for two minutes in January and I said, 'This is my guy.'"
That is not to say that Dean supporters aren't well informed and don't care about policy. They will tell you that Dean is fiscally responsible, and as proof they point out that he balanced Vermont's budget and is offering a universal healthcare plan that is cheaper than both Kucinich's and Gephardt's. But issues and "fiscal discipline" are not the reasons Dean's campaign has caught fire. Rather, Dean has tapped into Democrats' rage against Bush, a fury as palpable as Republicans' hatred of Clinton. His basic appeal is that he has the cujones to take on Bush and the milksops in his own party, especially on Iraq.
There are those who say that the Dean platform is not in fact progressive—including Dean himself. "I don't consider myself a progressive," he told The Nation's David Corn, confirming Corn's assessment of him as "the enemy of progressives in his home state." Certainly the Vermont Progressive Party is one of the more radical state parties in the country, but even Dean's supporters, when pressed, will usually admit that parts of his platform make them nervous.
Dean told the Chronicle via email, "The proposals I'm offering the American people tackle big problems in a common-sense way, while leaving room to balance the budget and pay down the debt." But the devil is in the details. Dean is on record saying that the way to balance the federal budget is "for Congress to cut Social Security, move the retirement age to 70, and cut defense, Medicare, and veterans' pensions." As of his June 22 appearance on Meet the Press, he has reversed himself, saying he would only block additional spending on those programs though he would still raise the retirement age to 68.
Host Tim Russert asked at least one legitimate question in an otherwise trifling interview: how does Dean intend to be fiscally responsible while enacting his healthcare plan, his public works plan, his other campaign promises (including increased spending on homeland security), and still pay down the national debt if he won't touch any of the big government programs he once advocated cutting? What else would he cut? Education? (In fact, Dean caught heat in Vermont for supposedly underfunding state colleges, and his final year budget as governor included cuts in public education.) Dean would only say he would rescind all of Bush's tax cuts, but that alone would not come close to covering the costs of his proposals.
"Vermont Doesn't have a Pentagon."
Defense spending would be the logical place for a progressive to start cutting since it is now approaching $400 billion and is bigger than the next 15 largest national military budgets combined. (Education, by comparison, accounts for $55 billion of the budget.) Since the Pentagon cannot pass an audit to account for how all this money is spent, one would think it would be an obvious target for the scissors of a "fiscal discipline" candidate. Yet for months on the campaign trail Dean has vowed not to touch the defense budget. (See Katrina vanden Heuvel's 4/30 "Editor's Cut" column in The Nation.)
One of Kucinich's aides seized on this as Dean's biggest weakness, breaking rank with the congressman's policy of not singling out any particular candidate in the primary for criticism. We countered that Governor Dean, after all, managed to turn his state's budgetary woes into a surplus. "Vermont doesn't have Pentagon," the aide shot back.
We then asked Dean supporter Andrea Perullo, who attended a recent Democratic convention in South Carolina, how she thought Dean could put his programs in place and balance the budget when he won't discuss the possibility of cutting what is by far the federal government's largest discretionary expense. "That's a good question," she admitted. "I think he'll be able to do it. Of course I'm sure he'll run into problems, but looking at his record in Vermont—I know it's a very small state—but turning a $70 million deficit into a $20 million surplus, he's pretty creative with money, so I've got to have faith he can do it. I'm hoping that he can."
The "Anti-War" Hawk?
Moreover, Dean "identifies more closely with Clinton's foreign policy than many progressives would like," as In These Times senior editor David Moberg notes in his assessment of Dean.
On the Middle East, Dean told us, "There must ultimately be a two-state solution, and to get there, both sides must make concessions." But even George W. Bush says that much. When we asked Dean why he previously endorsed AIPAC, the pro-occupation, pro-settlement lobby, he hedged a bit. "To be clear, I've never endorsed the policies of AIPAC, although I did meet with them, just as I met with Peace Now and other groups on all sides of this difficult issue."
However, late last year Forward, a Jewish affairs magazine, asked Dean if he supported Peace Now. "No, my view is closer to AIPAC's view," he said. "At one time Peace Now was important, but now Israel is under enormous pressure. We have to stop terrorism before peace negotiations."
One of AIPAC's former presidents, Steven Grossman, is a top fundraiser and spokesperson for Dean's campaign. AIPAC also organized and paid for a trip Dean made to Israel last November. The following month, Dean told the Jerusalem Post that he wanted to provide $8 billion in unconditional U.S. loan guarantees to Israel, going even further than Bush administration hawks like Paul Wolfowitz who advocate minimal conditions, such as restrictions on settlement-building.
In addition to Dean's support for the bombing campaign in Afghanistan, he also supports the foreign policy centerpiece of the War on Drugs, "Plan Colombia"—i.e., the Clinton-initiated policy of taking sides in Colombia's civil war by funding its military, despite its documented, intimate links with the paramilitary death squads responsible for most of the killings in that bloodiest of countries.
Dean told us that "there are no nations that currently present an imminent threat to the United States justifying military force," adding that al-Qaida does represent a threat. But here again Dean the "straight talker" resorts to double talk. In a March 2 appearance on Face the Nation, Dean said "al-Qaida and North Korea are both—are imminent threats to the United States," and said the U.S. might be "forced into" unilateral pre-emptive strike on North Korea "if they develop a missile that can reach the West Coast of the United States, which they are in the process of doing." He reinforced the point in an April speech before the Alliance for American Leadership, where he made it clear he would not rule out disarming North Korea and Iran by military force.
Even his position on Iraq has been somewhat fluid. On September 29 (again on Face the Nation), before Dean came out firmly against the war, he said "we may very well have to go into Iraq," adding that the U.S. should give Iraq an ultimatum: comply with UN resolutions within sixty days or else "we will reserve our right as Americans to defend ourselves and we will go into Iraq." Then, in February, as the Democratic presidential primary front-runners (Kerry, Gephardt, Lieberman, and Edwards) all lined up in support of the war, and as significant opposition to the war intensified in the Democratic rank-and-file, Dean declared the coming conflict was "the wrong war at the wrong time" (this time swiping the line from Ted Kennedy).
On trade, Dean is again Clinton Lite. "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," he told Moberg for the ITT profile, taking a cue from neoliberal guru Thomas Friedman.
After pointing out to Dean that in South Carolina alone thousands of manufacturing jobs are lost every month as part of NAFTA's legacy, we asked him to specify his position on NAFTA, the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA, mainly an expansion of NAFTA into all of Latin America), and Bush's plan for a free trade area with the Middle East. Dean claimed he hadn't had an opportunity to consider the latter two proposals, but, he said, "Future trade agreements should include labor and environmental standards. As for NAFTA and other existing pacts, I believe these agreements should be renegotiated to include those standards."
He did not elaborate as to what those standards should be, but his comments to Moberg provide a clue. "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 to organize that plant." That has a nice folksy, anecdotal appeal, and in theory it might be a way of reducing the number of sweatshops. But would/could it work in an autocratic country such as China? Even if it did, what good would it do the laid-off workers in Dearborn?
Dean does propose the reduction—but not the elimination—of corporate subsidies, though that would not be enough to stop the "dumping" of cheap, mass-produced, oft-subsidized imports on poorer nations, which drives local producers out of business and into the factories where the Dearborn workers' jobs are sent. Nor does Dean's trade policy address what progressives call the "undemocratic" structure of existing treaties, in which unelected bodies are empowered to pass sentence on the laws of sovereign nations if they are perceived to negatively impact the profits of multinational companies.
On campaign finance, Dean is again equivocal. He told the Chronicle, "We should have public financing of elections, instant runoff voting, and a better court that will not equate free speech with political contributions." Yet he admitted to Corn that as president he would "probably" grant greater access to the big donors of his campaign than to others, just as he did as governor. (This brings to mind the old Augustinian prayer: "Lord, make me perfect, but not yet awhile.") In fact, as governor Dean tried to eliminate the public financing component from Vermont's campaign finance law by shifting money from the Clean Money fund to other programs.
In Vermont, Dean's environmental record is the subject of intense debate. Most everyone applauds his land conservation efforts. "There are people who think he isn't tough enough on the environment," Dean supporter Chad Lykins acknowledged, "but I know he did a lot, like blocking off land for state parks totaling 475,000 acres [i.e., almost 8 percent of the area of Vermont]. I didn't know there were that many acres in Vermont."
However, Michael Colby, editor of Wild Matters, writes in a February column that aside from "these special parcels, the rest has been fair game for overdevelopment." Colby notes that Vermont had 36 percent more small farmers when Dean came to office than when he left, plus large "box" developments such as Wal-Mart shopping centers first became part of the Vermont landscape under Dean's watch.
In the same column Colby quotes Annette Smith, director of Vermonters for a Clean Environment, who quipped, "EP under Governor Dean meant Expedite Permits, not Environmental Protection." Part of Dean's legacy in Vermont is that 98 percent of the permit requests are approved, with hearings held for only 20 percent.
"Permitting stats don't tell the whole story," Dean countered when we asked him about the figures. "What matters is having a process of community involvement that allows for all sides to have input. Controlling sprawl is critical. It is a quality of life issue, a health issue, and an environmental issue wrapped into one. As president, I will work on a national level to find solutions to this serious problem." As governor, he added, he "worked with large retailers to prevent sprawl. One success of this effort is that, in Vermont, Wal-Mart has built stores downtown."
Actually, Wal-Mart built just one of its Vermont stores downtown, in Rutland. The rest lie outside city limits or in the suburbs. Wayne Senville, editor of Sprawl Guide, paints a decidedly unpastoral scene of Williston, site of one of the other Wal-Marts: "This small suburban town has become the superstore hub of Vermont—allowing its green fields to be transformed into giant retail sites served by spacious parking lots. The Burlington Free Press reports how Williston has rapidly sucked up a huge share of the county's retail market—growing from 15 percent to 21 percent of the county's share between 1992 and 1997 (and that is before several additional stores, and a new shopping mall, opened up) while Burlington's share dropped accordingly." A 1998 poll conducted by the Vermont Forum on Sprawl found that 61 percent of Vermonters considered sprawl to be a problem in their state.
Two years ago, Dean dismissed Elizabeth Courtney, who chaired his council of economic advisors, after she publicly criticized his abortive proposal to build a coal-fired power plant in Vermont. Moreover, no less a progressive than Paul Wellstone accused Governor Dean of environmental racism for trying to send nuclear waste from heavily Caucasian Vermont to Sierra Blanca, an impoverished Hispanic town in Texas.
On the issue that put Dean on the national map—gay rights—he is not as forthright on the national stage as he was in Vermont. Once the state Supreme Court forced it on him he came out strongly in favor of civil unions for gays, although he didn't choose the issue so much as it chose him. Now whenever the issue comes up he goes out of his way to nod to the right wing by emphasizing that Vermont's civil union statute explicitly preserves the definition of marriage as a union between a man and a woman. That makes him more circumspect on the issue than Kucinich, who is in favor of full and equal rights—including marriage—for gays. On Meet the Press, Dean would not say whether he would officially or personally favor recognizing the legality of a gay U.S. couple's marriage in Canada, though Russert gave him ample opportunity to do so.
Even Dean's rupture with the DLC may be exaggerated. Dean was the only candidate to attend the DLC luncheon in South Carolina the day of the debate there. In 1996, when he was running for re-election, the DLC praised Dean as a model candidate: "Democrats in state politics, regardless of their background, tend to be New Democrats by instinct. Incumbent centrist Democratic Governor Howard Dean of Vermont [is] popular and heavily favored for re-election."
No one is more surprised by Dean's emergence as a populist candidate than Vermonters, as Ross Sneyd notes in an Associate Press item. "The biggest disconnect for most Vermont voters from the Dean they knew as governor and the one they're getting to know as a presidential candidate is where he falls on the political spectrum. Dean was a centrist governor. He's viewed as a liberal candidate."
That is what makes Dean's candidacy so radical. By cloaking his "centrism" (a codeword for neoliberalism) in the language of Wellstone and Ted Kennedy, what Dean is doing is no less audacious than trying to redefine progressivism as a centrist philosophy. So far it seems to be working.
The Dean Machine in Action
Dean owes that success to his publicity machine, which has mastered the art of not just capturing but also dictating media buzz—even when that means taking the low road. Much was made of Dean's "sniping" with Kerry in the candidates' debate in South Carolina, but the real mudslinging was a private show for the journalists watching the debate in real time and filing their reports from the Debate Media Center. There we witnessed a case study in the mutually parasitic relationship between politicians and big media.
Whenever one candidate said something exploitable, moments later a press release from one of the other campaigns (produced by a team of caffeinated trolls typing feverishly in the cellar?) magically appeared at each reporters' station. This from the Lieberman camp: "[Kerry spokesman] Lehane says Kerry is ambivalent about Iraq." From the Kerry campaign: "Gephardt's plan places more costs on employees." From Gephardt's people: "Edwards campaign cites George Will" (gasp!). Et cetera. This was not just spin but ready-made copy, and many of the journalists present lapped it up ravenously. One example: in a web exclusive for U.S. News & World Report filed three days after the debate, Michael Barone writes about Kerry's "'ambivalence'—his spokesman's word—toward the Iraq war." In fact the spokesman did not directly say Kerry had been ambivalent about the war, but that the "country" was. Barone, it seems, was willingly spun by Lieberman.
Which brings us back to Dean: his camp was by far the most prolific in its production of insta-copy for reporters' (ahem) convenience during the debate. Out of about thirty press releases (i.e., one every two minutes), the Dean campaign produced at least seven, ranging from "Sen. Kerry misquotes Howard Dean," and "Dick Gephardt knows that when you find a winning message [i.e., 'Bush-Lite'], steal it!" to "You are cordially invited to a post-debate party...."
(By contrast, the only memos Kucinich's people handed reporters during the debates were copies of his closing statement and his healthcare plan. Whether that was due to scarcity of campaign resources or an abundance of scruple is debatable, but either way it didn't help him capture the fancy of Washington's voracious press corps.)
Progressive or Not?
Dean's progressivism is not entirely manufactured. In Vermont he found unconventional and seemingly effective ways to reduce child abuse and lower crime rates. He is inclined to view drug addiction as a medical rather than a criminal problem. He wants to invest in infrastructure projects such as alternative energy and rural access to broadband, both for their long-term benefits and the short-term job stimulus they would provide. He is for affirmative action and actually wants to broaden it based on class as well as race. And where Kucinich's record is equivocal on abortion and little else, Dean's is equivocal about most everything except abortion, for which his position has been clear and consistent.
Perhaps the most positive thing about Dean's campaign is that he's brought so many new faces into the party, dealing a blow to political apathy in the process. "This is going to be the first election I ever voted in," said Lykins, who was turned off by candidates' freeze-dried campaign rhetoric in the last election but is now a member of SC Students for Dean. Perullo was a Republican until a year-and-a-half ago, and to her Dean's stand on Iraq and his support for gay and women's rights bespeaks a humanist tolerance missing from politics-as-usual. Franke-Ruta's TAP article quotes one of Dean's volunteer organizers who had never written a check for any politician before becoming finance chairwoman of DC for Dean. "We're all, like, totally new," she said.
Yet it is probably fair to say that on most of the issues dear to progressives, Dean shows a neoliberal if not rightward drift. In the Corn interview, he refused to condemn Congress for passing the PATRIOT Act, saying the problem is the way right-wing judges might interpret it rather than the legislation itself. (Yet here again, he changed his stance recently; in his answers to MoveOn's candidate questionnaire, Dean specifically blasted Congress on the PATRIOT Act. He now says he would repeal "parts" of the law, though without specifying which parts). In 1997 he said he wanted to appoint a state Supreme Court Justice who would consider "common sense more important than legal technicalities" so as to "quickly convict guilty criminals." He favors the death penalty for people convicted of killing children and cops and for terrorists. He slashed Vermont's welfare program, set strict limits on the length of time single mothers can receive benefits, and once remarked that some welfare recipients "don't have any self-esteem. If they did, they'd be working." He killed the passage of a medical marijuana bill in Vermont just last year, against the wishes of the medical community and terminally ill patients. He opposes the Kyoto Protocol for much the same reason Bush does: because it doesn't put the same requirements on undeveloped countries as on richer nations (though he says he would have negotiated changes rather than dumping it.)
His record on gun control—as Governor of Vermont, he supported the carrying of concealed weapons—even gives Lykins pause: "Dean has an A+ rating—for better or for worse—from the NRA. He's one of the only persons [in the Democratic field] that is not in favor of passing additional [federal] gun legislation." However, Lykins added, that could help his chances in the South.
Potent or Placebo?
Dean's proposal for universal healthcare, a centerpiece of his campaign, divides progressives. Basically, the plan involves extending Medicaid to people under 23, adding a prescription drug benefit to Medicare, and giving subsidies to businesses and individuals to allow workers to get health insurance "in the market."
Robert Kuttner, the American Prospect editor who has praised Kucinich's single-payer plan, said every other candidate's plan including Dean's is not true universal coverage at all, because it "leaves the current system largely intact and uses subsidies and tax credits to reduce the number of uninsured—as if the whole system were not broken. With its wasteful fragmentation, billing, underwriting, and insurance company profits, there is only one big place to reap savings—by withholding more care as nonessential and by avoiding the sick."
Dean does not dispute that there are certain medical conditions that would be left uncovered. "This is not a Cadillac health insurance plan," he said in the interview with Corn. But he is impatient with his opponents' "pie-in-the-sky" health plans. Kucinich's single-payer system is "a total political impossibility," Dean told the Chronicle. Kuttner disagrees, pointing in his piece to a Wall Street Journal poll in which 55 percent of the respondents said they would rather have the government pay for healthcare than award tax cuts.
Of course, public will and political will are two different things. Lykins finds the idea of a single-payer system nice in theory but unrealistic because "any package that large [as Kucinich's] is likely to scare off a lot of Republicans." He sees Dean's plan, which would cost roughly $88 billion, as a nice compromise.
It should be noted that Dean, despite what his supporters may say, did not enact a universal healthcare plan as Governor of Vermont. On the stump, he gives the impression that the number of insured Vermonters rose dramatically under his watch until almost everyone was covered. Progressive commentator Alexander Cockburn has a different interpretation, describing Dean as "a man who undercut a drive for true universal health insurance with a more limited program." It all depends on how you view the numbers, but the bottom line is that in Dean's twelve years in office, the percentage of Vermonters with health insurance rose less that four percent, from 87.3 percent to 91 percent.
A pattern emerges: on nearly every issue, Dean the "straight talker" is actually a compromise candidate. This will appeal to those who view leadership as the ability to broker consensus through compromise. For them, Dean will remain the candidate who, while not perfect (and who is?), can get things done.
But the core of Dean's support comes from young idealists and activists for whom leadership means working to achieve the advancement of society as a whole rather than triangulating among competing interests for one's political advancement. At a certain point, the voters who love Dean most might discover he is not quite the candidate they think.
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This story was published on June 26, 2003.
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