Ballot Box

The Flip-Flops of Howard Dean

What he said then. What he says now. What happened.

Slate continues its short features on the 2004 presidential candidates. Previous series covered the candidates’ biographies, buzzwords, agendas, worldviews, best moments, and worst moments. This series assesses the candidates’ purported flip-flops. Here are two switches commonly attributed to Howard Dean—and the context his critics leave out.

Flip: In 1992, Dean said, “I don’t support the death penalty for two reasons. One, you might have the wrong guy, and, two, the state is like a parent. Parents who smoke cigarettes can’t really tell their children not to smoke and be taken seriously. If a state tells you not to murder people, a state shouldn’t be in the business of taking people’s lives.” The Rutland Herald, a Vermont newspaper, says that in those days “Dean was an outspoken opponent of the death penalty.”

Flop: In early June 2003, Dean issued a statement declaring, “As governor, I came to believe that the death penalty would be a just punishment for certain, especially heinous crimes, such as the murder of a child or the murder of a police officer. The events of Sept. 11 convinced me that terrorists also deserve the ultimate punishment.”

Context: Dean’s statement added, “I would instruct my attorney general to seek capital punishment only in very serious cases, including those involving vulnerable victims and those involving terrorism.” On June 22, 2003, Dean said on Meet the Press, “The only instances that I support the death penalty are 1) murder of a child, 2) a mass murder like a terrorist, and 3) the shooting of a police officer.” He cited a series of 1994 Vermont newspaper articles that documented his rethinking of capital punishment. Dean said the rape-murder of Polly Klaas by a previously convicted sex offender prompted his rethinking. He said he worried that life imprisonment without parole didn’t guarantee justice because convicted murderers could still get out on a “technicality.” He rejected deterrence (except for cop-killers) and vengeance as arguments for the death penalty. He said he came to support capital punishment because terrorists and child predators are “incapable of being rehabilitated,” and “to let these people out is too dangerous.”

Flip: On Feb. 28, 1995, Dean said on CNN’s Crossfire that Social Security “absolutely” needed to “increase the retirement age.” According to a March 3, 1995 Newhouse News Service report on a subsequent Dean breakfast with reporters, “The way to balance the budget, Dean said, is for Congress to cut Social Security, move the retirement age to 70, cut defense, Medicare and veterans pensions, while the states cut almost everything else.” In June 2003, Dean said on Meet the Press, “I also would entertain taking the retirement age to 68.”

Flop: At a presidential candidate forum on Aug. 5, 2003, Dean said, “I have never favored Social Security retirement at the age of 70, nor do I favor one of 68.”

Context: Dean’s denial that he flip-flopped rests on a highly technical interpretation of the word “favor.” He described what was necessary to balance the budget in 1995—and what he would “entertain” in 2005—but never said he would “favor” such measures. He also says that his 1995 remarks were about balancing the budget and that he can achieve this goal by repealing Bush’s tax cuts, raising the income ceiling on the payroll tax, and restraining increases in Medicaid and defense spending—thereby avoiding the need to raise the retirement age.