Ballot Box

The NPR Debate

Howard Dean’s incomplete damage control.

Dean Debate Scorecard, Take 2

Tuesday, in a debate with five other Democratic presidential candidates on National Public Radio, Howard Dean tried to patch up his weak spots. Here’s a look at how he did. (Click here to listen to NPR’s audio archive of the debate.)

1. Anger. This has become such a popular criticism of Dean that even Dennis Kucinich used it in this debate. As in Sunday’s Iowa debate, Dean mouthed the necessary clichés about “empowering” people through “hope, not anger.” For any other candidate, these platitudes would be dog-bites-man. But in an election whose principal theme lately has been Dean-bites-man, Dean-doesn’t-bite-man is a headline, and an important one.

2. U.N. permission. In Sunday’s debate, John Kerry portrayed Dean as a wimp for saying on Dec. 15, “Had the United Nations given us permission and asked us to be a part of a multilateral force, I would not have hesitated to go into Iraq, but that was not the case.” Tuesday, Dean clarified his position: “We are not going to give the United Nations veto power over our foreign policy.”

3. No safer. Kerry and others have blasted him for saying in the same Dec. 15 speech, “The capture of Saddam has not made America safer.” Tuesday, Dean refined his contention: “Saddam Hussein did not pose the kind of danger to the United States that, say, the Soviet Union did.” Kerry may have robbed himself of the ability to return to this line of attack. In the NPR debate, he agreed that the Bush team had “left the world at much greater risk, including, obviously, the United States of America. They are not making America safer.”

4. Clinton. Dean got in trouble two weeks ago for saying, “While Bill Clinton said that the era of big government is over, I believe we must enter a new era for the Democratic Party, not one where we join Republicans and aim simply to limit the damage they inflict on working families.” Tuesday, Dean bent over backward to make nice with Clinton. “I do believe in a balanced budget, and I think we ought to have one, and I think we can do it in six or seven years. And Bill Clinton believed in the same thing,” said Dean, adding, “Bill Clinton did a fantastic job as president, because he had extraordinary political skills, bringing people together.”

5. Defense. Dean tried to toughen his image on national security by calling Bush weak on North Korea and promising not to cut the Pentagon budget. “Our soldiers aren’t getting paid enough,” said Dean. “We don’t have adequate intelligence, either human intelligence or cyber-intelligence. We don’t have adequate special ops forces. … So I don’t think that you can say you’re going to cut the defense budget and still defend the United States.” Dean added that Bush “is about to allow North Korea to become a nuclear power,” and in turn, “They’ll sell that weaponry to terrorists or to other countries.”

Politically, these arguments won’t cut it. Dean’s complaint about North Korea is that Bush refuses to negotiate bilaterally. Dean also reaffirmed his view that U.S. foreign policy should focus on “diplomacy” rather than “violence.” That’s an invitation to the GOP to pound him all year for appeasement and naiveté.

6. Gay civil unions. On this issue, Dean made himself more vulnerable. “I actually appointed the six-term Republican attorney general in my state to the chief justice of our supreme court,” Dean boasted. “He was great. He actually was the one that wrote the civil unions decision.” Until now, Dean was just the guy who signed the bill. Now he’s the guy who’s proud to have appointed the judge who forced the legislature to pass the bill. I support gay marriage on conservative grounds, but most voters view it as radical. To that problem, Dean now adds an embrace of what looks like judicial activism

7. Taxes. Dean’s promise to repeal the Bush tax cuts even for the middle class remains his biggest problem. In Tuesday’s debate, a guy e-mailing from New Hampshire put the question to Dean this way: “You’re proposing the elimination of President Bush’s tax cuts, including the child tax credit. I’m the father of three children. My wife stays at home with them and we have made great sacrifices to raise our family on one paycheck. How can you justify taking this money from us?”

Dean began his answer by saying, “Ultimately, we will have a program of tax fairness for middle-class people.” That was even fuzzier than the tease at the bottom of a Tuesday morning Washington Post article: “A top aide said Dean is considering a tax reform plan for the general election that includes a reduction in payroll taxes.” In the NPR debate, Joe Lieberman pointed out the inadequacy of Dean’s answer: “I don’t know what he means when he says ultimately we’re going to have a tax reform program. We’re running for president now. We have to tell people what we want to do.”

The tone of Dean’s answer reeked of Michael Dukakis. The question was personal, but Dean responded with statistics and principles. “There was no middle-class tax cut for most people,” he said. “For this individual, yes. But most people’s tuitions have gone up. … We cannot keep telling people we’re going to give them all the programs they want and then there’s not going to be any sacrifice.”

I understand Dean’s logic. He believes in sound policy even when it seems cold. So did Dukakis. Dean believes in fiscal responsibility. So did Paul Tsongas. Dean believes in telling the truth: The government must raise taxes to pay for services. So did Walter Mondale and Bruce Babbitt. As Lieberman noted in the NPR debate, “I don’t know of a case where a Democratic candidate for president has been elected who called for a massive increase in taxes on the middle class.” Contrast Dean’s eat-your-spinach message with the candy offered by Dick Gephardt. When asked Tuesday what programs he would eliminate, Gephardt named nothing outside the military. “I’m going to give $3,000 to the average family in economic benefits instead of the $500 or $700 that they get under the Bush tax cuts,” Gephardt promised.

Dean did argue that his health-insurance proposal and his college-aid program would compensate the guy in New Hampshire for the loss of his tax cut. Dean added that “while individuals like the caller will have higher taxes”—a quote sure to be repeated out of context in Republican ads—”if we were all paying the same taxes we paid when Bill Clinton was president, we could have the same kind of economy we had.” But Kerry demonstrated why this argument won’t work. “If [people’s] property tax went up and if other taxes have gone up because of [Bush’s tax cuts], nothing that Howard is proposing lowers that burden,” said Kerry. “In fact, he’s going to add to it. … They’re going to pay additional taxes now on top of the health-care costs, on top of the tuition costs.”

It’s clear from the way Dean drags his heels on this issue that he thinks he’s putting fiscal honesty before politics. He forgets that on defense spending, he long ago surrendered that conceit. In June, well before he had fully analyzed military outlays, Dean ruled out “cutting the Pentagon budget when we’re in the middle of difficulty with terror attacks.” Tuesday, he listed various military needs but never explained why a shrewd fiscal manager like himself couldn’t find enough fat in the exploding defense and homeland security budgets to fund real needs and still have savings left over. The reason Dean promises not to cut defense spending is that he needs that pledge to get elected, fiscal honesty be damned.

Why doesn’t he strike the same moral bargain on middle-class taxes? Budget balancing doesn’t explain it: He could get the money for health insurance and college aid by taking even more from the rich, as Lieberman and Wes Clark propose. The answer, I think, lies in Dean’s choice of the word “sacrifice.” He thinks you ought to pay for what you get from the government. He’s betting that you’ll respect his candor on that point more than you’ll resent him for trying to raise your taxes. I think it’s a noble bet, and a bad one.