Governor, You're No George McGovern

Why Howard Dean might be the next Bill Clinton

Howard Dean—the former Vermont governor who is leading the Democratic presidential pack—is a suicide pill, too left-wing to win. Or so goes the conventional wisdom. "Unless he changes course dramatically, Dr. Dean looks the wrong man for the Democrats," says The Economist. Many observers liken Dean to George McGovern, who steered the party off a cliff in 1972. In fact, George McGovern likens Dean to George McGovern. "In the candidacy of Howard Dean," reported The New York Times last month, McGovern "hears echoes of his own."

Don't bet on it. I spent several days recently poring over Dean's speeches and other public comments. The conclusion was not as expected. The Dean campaign may be set to the music of firebrand liberalism, but its words belie the notion that Dean has painted himself into a far-left corner. Even on Iraq—his signature issue—Dean has planted himself subtly but distinctly to the right of his supporters.

Dean's faithful believe the war was wrong, wrong, wrong. Dean seems to agree. "Had I been a member of the Senate," he said in a speech in February, "I would have voted against the resolution that authorized the president to use unilateral force against Iraq—unlike others in that body now seeking the presidency." In late November, he ran an ad saying, "I opposed the war in Iraq, and I'm against spending another $87 billion there."

High-octane stuff; but Dean has been more cautious on Iraq than his enthusiasts realize. For example, in that same February speech, he went on to say, "I do not believe the president should have been given a green light to drive our nation into conflict...without a requirement that we at least try first to work through the United Nations." That sentence contains some artful phrasing.

In reality, Dean favored an alternative war resolution (sponsored by Sens. Joseph Biden, D-Del., and Richard Lugar, R-Ind.) that differed little from the one that passed. True, Biden-Lugar called on Bush to seek a United Nations Security Council resolution authorizing the war, but it did not require Bush to obtain such a resolution, if the Security Council balked. In other words, Dean favored a congressional resolution authorizing exactly the course that Bush took.

"Howard, I think you're all over the lot on this issue," said Rep. Dick Gephardt in a November debate. "All over the lot" is a bit of an exaggeration: Dean made no secret of his opposition to military action after Congress gave Bush a green light. Still, Dean's anti-war posture was less clear-cut—or, if you prefer, more nuanced—than his reputation and rhetoric suggest.

In hindsight, Dean's position was not coherent, but neither was it pacifist or hard-left. Dean touted his support for the 1991 Persian Gulf War and for Bush's attack on Afghanistan. He took care not to renounce unilateralism. "I am not among those who say that America should never use its armed forces unilaterally," he said in his February speech—one of several such statements. In an Associated Press interview that month, he said: "I am not in the no-way camp. Definitely not. I think Saddam must be disarmed. The problem I have is that I have a deep reluctance to attack a country unilaterally without a pretty high standard of proof."

Dean said he believed Saddam "may well" possess chemical and biological weapons. What he had not seen, he maintained, was sufficient evidence that such weapons posed an imminent threat. Shortly after Secretary of State Colin Powell, in a speech to the United Nations, presented the administration's evidence of the Iraqi menace, Dean said: "I was impressed not by the vastness of evidence presented by the secretary, but rather by its sketchiness." Going to war, Dean said, requires either an international consensus or smoking-gun evidence of an imminent threat—not necessarily both, but one or the other. The Bush administration had neither.

Dean's position was incoherent because it called for containing Saddam through continued inspections, which continued only because of the threat of unilateral force that Dean would have withdrawn. That contradiction will come back to bite him if the Bush administration looks triumphant in Iraq next summer and fall. Bush will say, "If Howard Dean were president of the United States, Saddam Hussein would still be president of Iraq." Dean will go down.

If, however, the situation in Iraq looks dismal in eight months, Dean's position will look pretty good. He will say he favored prudence over both pacifism and recklessness. He will remind voters that he said, in October of 2002, "The president has never said what the truth is, which is if we go into Iraq we will be there for 10 years.... The president must tell us that before we go." Dean will be able to position himself as the prescient moderate.

On domestic policy, Dean has even more room to maneuver. Fiscally, he is to the right of where Bill Clinton was in 1992. Clinton, as everybody soon forgot, ran as a big-spending, heavy-handed liberal. He wanted to require all but the smallest companies to spend 1.5 percent of their payroll on employee training. He wanted $80 billion for new public works. He promised universal health coverage for free. He promised all sorts of new tax breaks. He ducked the deficit. By contrast, Dean describes himself as a fiscal conservative who balances budgets. "I'm a thrifty person," he said in a July speech, "and I hate waste and inefficiency." Howard Dean, meet Calvin Coolidge.

On health care, Dean is solidly in the Democratic party's center, with a health plan that is less ambitious and less costly than Gephardt's—to say nothing of Clinton's. A National Journal panel of experts gave Dean's plan a "moderate [score] for the numbers of uninsured Americans [it] would pick up." On trade, Dean is to Clinton's left, demanding that trade pacts be renegotiated to include labor and environmental standards. Even here, however, he has given himself some room by suggesting that the standards might be set by the International Labor Organization, not necessarily by the United States. In any case, Dean's domestic policies, taken as a group, arguably place him to the right of candidate Clinton.

Has Dean mortgaged his future to his far-left supporters? Doubtful. Liberals' enthusiasm for Dean is not necessarily the same thing as Dean's enthusiasm for liberals. He governed as a moderate in Vermont, and his two decades in politics mark him as a centrist, a fact with which he would ceaselessly regale his audiences beginning the day after winning the nomination. Even if he has "drunk the Kool-Aid of his own campaign" (as one political observer put it), he will have plenty of time to swallow the centrist antidote next year. Most voters, apart from fierce Democratic partisans, will not tune in until then.

As for those fierce Democratic partisans, they will tolerate any kind of repositioning in order to defeat Bush. In the heat of battle, all that will matter will be Dean's status as Our Side's Guy. The passion and loyalty that Dean is building on the left today will not so much tie him down as free him up, securing the same sort of trusting base, and therefore the same sort of license to shift toward the center, that Ronald Reagan enjoyed in 1980.

As evidence that progressive Democrats will forgive Dean for all kinds of impurities, I offer the fact that they are already doing so. On June 17, in a statement to the progressive Web site MoveOn.org, Dean said that the doctrine of "pre-emptive war" was wrong and dangerous; he promised to "tear up the Bush doctrine" on his first day in office. On June 25, in a speech before the establishmentarian Council on Foreign Relations, he instead criticized only the "misuse" of the doctrine, saying it "is not a comprehensive strategy." The Left didn't mind.

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