All year, Howard Dean has been gaining ground in the Democratic presidential race. And all year, Democratic centrists have been scrambling for a candidate to stop him. He’s too liberal, they said. He’s soft on defense, a Vermont lefty, an evangelist for expansive programs. To stop him, they turned to Joe Lieberman, then John Kerry, then Wes Clark. But the more Dean’s rivals expose his record, the more I suspect that the centrist who’s going to spare Democrats this left-wing nightmare isn’t any of these guys. It’s Howard Dean.
Months ago, when the candidates squared off at a Children’s Defense Fund forum, moderator Judy Woodruff tried to embarrass Dean by pointing out that he had criticized “liberals” for opposing the 1996 welfare reform law. An article in The Nation complained that Dean had cut welfare spending in Vermont, supported the death penalty, opposed federal gun control, and criticized Dick Gephardt’s “radical revamping of our healthcare system.” On Sept. 4, in the first of the fall debates, Dennis Kucinich charged that Dean would have to cut “social spending” because Dean was intent on “balancing the budget” and was “not going to cut the military.” Five days later, in the next debate, Joe Lieberman protested that Dean had “said Israel ought to get out of the West Bank and an enormous number of their settlements ought to be broken down.” In a general election, I figure these attacks would get Dean at least the 537 votes Democrats needed to win Florida in 2000 and probably the 7,211 they needed to win New Hampshire.
For a while, I worried that Dean was a protectionist. Then Gephardt relieved me of that impression, pointing out on Sept. 14 that Dean had declared himself “a very strong supporter of NAFTA.” On Sept. 25, in the third fall debate, Dean was forced to admit that he had advised President Clinton to admit China to the World Trade Organization on “national security” grounds, betraying competence in both economics and foreign policy. Kucinich chastised Dean for proposing a health insurance program that fell far short of Kucinich’s plan, which would cover “everything” and require an additional “7.7 percent tax paid by employers” on all wages. On Oct. 9, in the fourth fall debate, Kucinich complained that Dean was against pulling out of Iraq immediately. Dean had to concede that he thought such a pullout would be irresponsible, because in the post-Saddam power vacuum, if al-Qaida were to “establish a foothold in Iraq, or if a fundamentalist Shiite regime comes in, allied with Iran, that is a real security danger to the United States.” That moment alone may have earned Dean the 21,597 votes he would need to pick up Nevada.
Now the big scandal is Dean’s fiscal responsibility. Gephardt’s opposition researchers have discovered that to rein in the federal deficit in 1995, Dean proposed to “move the retirement age to 70” and “reduce the Medicare growth rate from 10% to 7%, or less if possible.” Toward that end, Dean endorsed “requiring some Medicare recipients to pay a greater share of the cost of their medical services.” Dean had the gall to say it was “unfair” to take Social Security and Medicare “off the table when it comes time for budget cuts,” because then “states and poor people would suffer disproportionately” from having to bear the entire burden. In 1996, Dean rashly “said the federal government should follow a nonpartisan commission’s recommendations to reduce the Social Security cost-of-living adjustment.” In 1997, he supported the Balanced Budget Act.
Worse, according to Gephardt, Dean actually proposed to reform federal programs he thought weren’t working. In 1992, Dean accused Medicare of “mismanagement.” In 1995, he met with House Speaker Newt Gingrich and expressed interest in Gingrich’s proposal to limit the growth of Medicaid “because [the proposal] would free the states from many federal mandates, allowing them the freedom to better manage health care costs.” In a shameful pact with the radical right, Dean endorsed the Republican push for “decentralization, more block grants, but not total freedom for the states.”
But Dean’s most despicable heresy in the 1990s, it turns out, was his defiance of the AARP. “We all better stop being terrified” of lobbyists for elderly Americans, Dean said, according to a Sept. 26 Gephardt press release. Gephardt noted that the AARP’s president repeatedly assailed the Medicare cost controls Dean had endorsed. Two days after Gephardt issued his release, Kerry issued another that quoted an AARP official denouncing Dean for making seniors share the cost-cutting burden in Vermont.
You can imagine how angry I am, as a swing voter, to find out these horrible things about Dean. My hands are trembling so violently, I can barely write his name on the check.