Ballot Box

Hearing It From Howard

Gov. Dean’s evolving spiel.

On Sunday, Howard Dean fielded questions at the “Hear It From the Heartland” forum, a rotating presidential candidate audition hosted by Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa. Dean tried out several new campaign messages. Here’s a review.

1.Bush “is not popular because of his policies, because most Americans don’t agree with his policies. … The reason people like George Bush is they think he’s a leader. They think that he says what he means in unambiguous terms. And the way to beat him is not to try to be like him [on the issues]. The way to beat him is to unambiguously state our Democratic Party agenda, because if you put a Democratic agenda next to a Republican agenda, the Democratic agenda’s going to win every time.”

There’s a good case to be made for this theory. Polls show Bush is substantially more popular than most of his policies are. Furthermore, Dean would be an excellent nominee to test the theory. He has a Reagan-esque, strong-backboned appeal even to people (like me) who find him too liberal. He’d either win the presidency or discredit the theory, so we wouldn’t have to hear about “the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party” for another four years.

2. “One of the things I think this president misses is that defense is not just about a strong military. It’s also about building middle-class nations with democratic ideals where women fully participate in the economic and political decision-making of those countries. Because those kinds of countries don’t go to war with each other, and they do not knowingly harbor groups like al-Qaida. So if you want a strong defense policy, we ought to think about how to help other countries, and not just how to offend every single one as this president seems … to have done.”

This is an interesting attempt to redefine the issue most troublesome to Dean. He has no history of significant military responsibility and no evident passion for the subject. In a recent visit to U.S. Marine training exercises in South Carolina, he looked as though he was visiting a foreign country. Now he appears to be trying to redefine “defense” to include diplomacy. Good luck. Americans do want the affection of other countries. But I doubt they’ll let that endeavor substitute for the traditional, muscular meaning of defense.

3. “My reason for opposing the war in Iraq wasn’t because I thought Saddam was a wonderful guy and I wish he’d stay around. I’m delighted that he’s gone.”

This is a major improvement on Dean’s lukewarm statement at a Children’s Defense Fund forum last month: “We got rid of him. I suppose that’s a good thing.” At the May 3 South Carolina debate, Dean pronounced himself “delighted” at Saddam’s demise and seems to be sticking with that formulation.

4. Responding to a question about governing a much smaller state than Texas: “Well, Texas has the 48th best education system in the country; we have the sixth. Texas has the highest percentage of children with no health insurance in America; we’re No. 1. We have a balanced budget; Texas just tried to cut every single kid off health insurance … to balance their budget. I think the people of this country are going to have a great opportunity to choose between whether they want the Vermont model or the Texas model.”

Dean rattled off these lines as though he’s been practicing them for the general election. The Vermont half sounds pretty good, but the Texas half is a bit odd. People don’t think of Bush as the governor of Texas anymore. If his election didn’t give him presidential luster, Sept. 11 did. As for fiscal and financial woes, why pick on Texas—and possibly alienate parts of the Southeast and Southwest—when the whole country is in the toilet? It’s the national economy, stupid.

5. “My health insurance plan … is built on the existing system. It’s not that the existing system is so great; it’s just that I’m tired of trying to get the reforms through Congress and then have the Democrats fight among each other about how to do it, and then the Republican special interests come in and kill the whole thing. So what I want to do is just build on the existing system, get everybody insured first, and then we can have a big fight as to how to change the system.”

This is the clearest statement I’ve heard yet from Dean as to why his plan is better than the others. The health-care issue is enormously complicated and will become more so as other candidates pile their plans on top of Dean’s, Dick Gephardt’s, and John Kerry’s. Nobody’s going to believe that one of these plans is better than all the others in every respect. Each candidate needs to convey in a simple way the standard by which his proposal is the best. Dean has now done so, in a way that enhances his credibility by conceding which virtues his plan compromises to achieve its object. Let’s see whether Gephardt, Kerry, and the rest can follow suit.