An Old-Style Centrist
Howard Dean, the former governor of Vermont, is fond of saying he is running for President "from the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party"--a direct quote from the late progressive Senator Paul Wellstone. Like Wellstone, Dean is critical of the Democrats for not putting up more of a fight against an aggressively rightwing Republican agenda.
"I think the country is going in the wrong direction both economically and in terms of foreign policy," he told me in a car-phone interview during a recent campaign trip, "and I don't think the Democrats are going to be able to beat the President with the equivalent of Bush Lite."
As an outspoken opponent of the war with Iraq, Dean has been drawing cheers and lifting the spirits of Democratic activists who are spoiling for a fight. He chastises his colleagues for voting for the war, and for rolling over on the Bush tax cuts and what he calls the "Every Child Left Behind" education bill.
But while Wellstone spent his life fighting his party's creeping centrism, Dean only recently took up his position as a left fielder. He considers himself a moderate, and he has often crossed swords with Vermont progressives--including a challenger from the state's Progressive Party who won 10 percent of the vote in the last gubernatorial election.
"It's a pathetic thing that I'm the most progressive candidate" among those considered to have a serious shot at the nomination, Dean says.
Progressives in Vermont don't disagree. "Few people would have accused him of being a progressive governor in Vermont," says Paul Burns, executive director of the Vermont Public Interest Research Group (one of the network of consumer and environmental advocacy groups founded by Ralph Nader). "It was not by accident that a strong progressive party was formed while he was governor here as an alternative to some of the positions he was taking."
Environmentalists in Vermont faulted Dean for weak enforcement and for policies that favored large factory farms, as well as for his position in favor of Yucca Mountain as the single repository for nuclear waste in the country--a position that put him at odds with then-Republican Senator Jim Jeffords. Social service advocates criticized him for being a fiscal conservative. And during the last election, the Progressive Party was outraged when Dean attempted to defund the public campaign finance system in Vermont.
Dean, who advocates federal campaign finance reform in the form of public financing of elections, instant runoff voting, and spending limits, responds that Vermont's campaign finance system was a mess after the courts struck down spending limits. "I didn't pull the financing out to screw the Progressive Party. I did it because nobody could use the money," he says.
On other issues, though, he is unapologetic about raising progressives' ire. Dean had the strong support of the National Rifle Association when he was governor, and he insists that gun control should be a state, not federal, issue.
"My position is not unreasonable," he says. "I support the assault-weapon ban, I support the Brady Bill. I want to close the gun-show loophole. But after that, I want each state to be able to make their own gun laws--as much as they want or as little as they want. We don't have much gun control in Vermont, and we also have the lowest homicide rate in America. So why have a big gun control law? Why not let California and New York make as many gun laws as they want but not have them in Vermont and Wyoming and Montana?"
Dean is not categorically opposed to the war. "I don't think you should run for President unless you're willing to use the military might of the United States to defend ourselves," he says. "But I don't think that the President ever made a case that Iraq was a particular danger to the United States. And I think that North Korea is a particular danger. Bush is refusing to negotiate with them. The policy is a policy of bullying and intimidation of both our allies and our enemies."
On domestic issues, progressives give Dean high marks on the issue of health care. A former family doctor, he is a passionate advocate for providing health care coverage to the uninsured. Vermont now provides coverage to more people than almost any other state, thanks largely to Dean's efforts. Only 1.9 percent of the state's poor children were uninsured in the years 1996-1998, according to a report by the Vermont Agency of Human Services. This was the lowest rate in the country.
Instead of advocating a Canadian-style, single-payer system, Dean says he wants to apply Vermont's model to the whole nation, expanding Medicare, Medicaid, and employer health coverage, then working toward crafting a better system.
"My attitude, having tried to do it for twenty years in one way or another, is we ought to try to get everyone in the system and then talk about reform," he says. "We've done the opposite the first three times we've tried it under Truman, Carter, and Clinton. The result was that we couldn't get anything done. . . . Every time we have that fight about how to reform first, the losers are the forty-two million people who go on for another ten years with no health insurance."
Dean's political role model is Jimmy Carter. He got interested in politics while licking envelopes on Carter's 1976 campaign. "Jimmy Carter got me into politics on the notion of connecting human rights and foreign policy," he says. "Now we've got to connect human rights and trade policy." By that, he means attaching labor and environmental standards to all trade agreements.
Dean is not a member of the Democratic Leadership Council, the group founded in 1985 to promote centrism within the party, but he reads their literature and says they have some good ideas.
"At the beginning I think it was very good, because I think the party wasn't winning elections because we were too far to the left," he says. "Now I think the party has moved too far to the right."
Dean says Bush has been something of a stealth conservative.
"George Bush governed Texas as a relative moderate--not a super moderate--but then when he came into the White House he started espousing all this super rightwing stuff," says Dean. "And I think this country is headed in an extreme direction. I think it's painful for a lot of middle class Americans who are trying to make ends meet, and I think it's painful for a lot of our former allies who've discovered that America's woken up to be a bully."
Dean may not have a progressive track record like Wellstone or leftwing candidate Dennis Kucinich, but at least he is raising issues that once constituted the core of the Democratic Party's message. He could act as a healthy corrective to a party that seems to have trouble distinguishing itself from the Republicans, even as the Republicans move further and further to the right.
"Harry Truman first introduced the notion of health insurance for all Americans in 1948," Dean points out. "Now people consider it a socialist plot. That shows how far to the right we are. I think it's too far right, and I think most Americans agree with that."