Ballot Box

The Best of Howard Dean

The bravest thing he ever did.

Slate continues its short features on the 2004 presidential candidates. Previous series covered the candidates’ biographies, buzzwords, agendas, and worldviews. This series assesses the story that supposedly shows each candidate at his best. Here’s the one told by supporters of Howard Dean—and what they leave out.

The story: “Six months before my last re-election [in 2000] I signed a bill into law that made Vermont the first state in American to guarantee equal rights to every person under the law. … That bill was called the civil unions bill. And it said that marriage is between a man and a woman, but same-sex couples are entitled to the exact same legal rights as I have—hospital visitation, insurance, and inheritance rights. … This bill was at about 40 percent in the polls when I signed it. Sixty percent were against it, six months before the election. I never got a chance to ask myself whether signing it was a good idea or not because I knew that if I were willing to sell out the rights of a whole group of human beings because it might be politically inconvenient for a future office I might run for, then I had wasted my time in public service. I looked in the mirror, and I knew that if my political career were about myself, then I would not have signed that bill. But my political career has never been about getting elected. … My political career is about change.” (Dean speech, Feb. 21, 2003)

Reality check: Dean had no choice but to accept such a bill. In December 1999, the Vermont Supreme Court ruled that Vermont was “constitutionally required to extend to same-sex couples the common benefits and protections that flow from marriage under Vermont law.” The court instructed the legislature to grant gays “inclusion within the marriage laws themselves or a parallel ‘domestic partnership’ or some equivalent statutory alternative.”

Given that choice, Dean took the more conservative option. According to the Associated Press, Vermont’s lieutenant governor and House speaker supported gay marriage, but Dean didn’t. Gay marriage “makes me uncomfortable, the same as anybody else,” Dean said at the time. He did encourage the legislature to pass a civil unions bill. But the alternative he averted was legalizing gay marriage, not preventing gay domestic partnerships.

Many supporters of the bill criticized Dean for signing it “in the closet,” in private and without a ceremony.

The reason Dean looks bold on this issue is that conservatives attacked him for supporting and signing the bill. In 2000, his Republican opponent accused him of threatening and bribing lawmakers to vote for the bill. Dean got so many threats that he had to wear a bulletproof vest. And the issue did sharply reduce his margin of victory.