Disillusioned With Howard Dean

16 October 2003

By Stentor Danielson

I’ll say right up front that, of all the people who are running for President at the moment, I’d most like to see former Vermont Governor Howard Dean in the White House. I support him in a genuine way -- not just because he’s more electable than a progressive candidate like Ohio congressman Dennis Kucinich, but because I actually agree with most of his positions.

There are lots of other Americans who want to see Dean win next year. Many of them are exceptionally passionate about their man, organizing “Meet-Ups” without prompting from campaign headquarters and building an impressive grassroots campaign both on and off the internet. They come from across the political spectrum, with thriving “Republicans for Dean,” “Libertarians for Dean” and “Greens for Dean” in addition to the expected Democrats and independents. They’re people who are fed up with politics as usual, with the weaselly poll-driven position shifting and reliance on corporate and interest-group donors that characterize other politicians. Dean, they say, is different. He’s a straight-shooter who isn’t afraid to take an unpopular stance, while being responsive to his constituents’ ideas and desires. The symbol of this is the campaign’s official blog, blogforamerica.com. In contrast to the cold corporate feel of the BushCheney campaign blog (georgewbush.com/blog), Blog for America features a reader comment feature, frequent guest writers, and links to independent bloggers.

For a long time I’ve wanted to be one of them too, swept up in the excitement of a campaign for a candidate who really represents the Americans he serves. But lately I’ve found that feeling harder to capture. While I still favor the short Vermonter, I’ve become disillusioned with Dean. As the campaign progresses, Dean has been revealing himself to be just another politician. He has flip-flopped and changed strategy in ways that leave me wondering just who Dean is, and how well I can trust his judgement as President.

Dean has a reputation for being belligerent. All along, he has directed most of his venom at President Bush, and he has inspired the other Democrats to do likewise. As Dean’s harsh criticism of the President vaulted him into front-runner status, some of the other candidates turned their guns on Dean. Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman, for example, accused his rival of wanting to turn the “Bush recession” into a “Dean depression.” This was an unfair and unproductive attack, and Dean took the high ground by calling on the other candidates to keep their sights trained on Bush.

More recently, Dean had a change of heart when he saw what it was like to be eclipsed by a fast-rising rival. When retired General Wesley Clark became the instant Democratic front-runner, Dean initially seemed to take a collegial attitude. He avoided criticism of Clark during their first debate, fueling hopes of an eventual Dean-Clark or Clark-Dean ticket.

It seems Dean was only taking a break to get his talking points together. Soon after that debate, Dean said Clark “was a Republican until 25 days ago.” While Clark had put off registering as a Democrat (he was previously independent) until the last minute and had praised the Bush Administration in the past, Dean’s venom was unwarranted and unhelpful.

One of the things I initially liked about Dean was his willingness to be upfront about changing his positions. I disagreed with his conversion from anti-death-penalty to pro-, but I could respect that he didn’t try to weasel around the change. He often said that, as a doctor, he would change his views to fit the facts (while accusing conservatives of being so beholden to their ideology that they would throw out inconvenient facts).

Yet of late Dean has taken to covering his flip-flops with a dose of historical revisionism. For example, Dean’s position on international trade has shifted substantially to the left. He started out the campaign claiming that, while he wanted to renegotiate trade agreements to take labor and environmental standards into account, he thought that things like the World Trade Organization and the North American Free Trade Agreement [NAFTA] were useful frameworks to be retained. Later he went further, suggesting that the US should not trade with any country that could not match American labor and environmental standards. This is all very different from what Dean said back when NAFTA was being negotiated and Vermont stood to benefit from it. Yet rather than explaining why he had turned over a new leaf, Dean seemed not to know that he had ever supported NAFTA. He did his best to wriggle out of his previous favorable comments on the agreement when rivals threw his own quotes in his face.

Dean has also been trying to dodge hard questions. He spent weeks trying to avoid saying whether he would vote for the $87 billion that Bush has requested for Iraq and Afghanistan, saying that he wouldn’t answer a hypothetical question. He finally broke down, tying support for the money to a retraction of part of Bush’s enormous tax cuts.

Likewise, Dean had a hard time giving a straightforward response to Missouri Representative Dick Gephardt’s charge that Dean stood with former Republican Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich on cutting Medicare funding. Dean could have explained the truth -- that he had agreed with one element of Gingrich’s original plan, as a strategy for restoring fiscal discipline, but that he fiercely disagreed with the overall budget that was finally proposed. Instead, he refused to address the specifics, obsessing over Gephardt’s implied “Dean is like Gingrich” smear, becoming apoplectic that he could be compared to that hated Republican.

None of this makes Dean worse than his rivals. But it takes away something that could have made him much better. Dean may hail from outside the Beltway, but he thinks like someone at home in DC.

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