Ballot Box

Son of a Milieu Worker

Howard Dean’s scorecard in the Iowa debate.

Rating the main attraction

Sunday afternoon, seven of the nine Democratic presidential candidates debated in Iowa. This morning I reviewed the debate’s highlights and lowlights. Now it’s time to assess the star of the show, Howard Dean.

1. Playing well with others. Dean was obviously trying to control his tongue and look inclusive. Verbally, he succeeded. He said that his campaign was based on hope, not anger; that he was trying to empower voters and enlarge the party; and that he supported U.S. troops even when he opposed Bush’s policies abroad. He offered Carol Moseley Braun some of his time. He apologized to John Edwards—again—for misrepresenting him months ago. Addressing complaints from pundits and Democratic insiders, Dean affirmed that Democrats must campaign against Bush through “addition, not subtraction” and that he would support the Democratic nominee if it’s somebody else. (Dean got the other candidates to take the same pledge, earning applause and a pat on the back from the moderator: “You’re a consensus-builder, Gov. Dean.”

2. Body language. It’s easier to mouth friendly words than to fake a friendly demeanor. Dean couldn’t manage the latter. He was visibly uptight and couldn’t smile when he wasn’t in control. The worst moment was when he said it would take him six or seven years to balance the budget. The audience laughed. Instead of laughing along, Dean appeared confused and furrowed his brow in what looked like anger at the panel of questioners, who evidently had signaled him to stop. Dean seems to vary from debate to debate. Sometimes he feels good, but when he doesn’t, he’s lousy at hiding it. He just doesn’t cope well with the predictable hostility.

3. Gaffes. Dick Gephardt, Joe Lieberman, and especially John Kerry chided Dean for having said that the United States wouldn’t always have the strongest military, that we shouldn’t go to war without U.N. permission, that Osama Bin Laden’s guilt in the 9/11 plot shouldn’t be prejudged, and that Bush, according to an “interesting theory,” ignored an advance warning about 9/11. I think the first charge is bogus (Dean never said our loss of military supremacy was imminent or desirable), the second is a verbal nitpick, and Dean is technically right about the third. The fourth is a complete outrage, and Dean owes Bush an apology for it. But politically, these distinctions are lost on most Democratic primary voters, who don’t find any of the quotes sufficiently upsetting to compel them to vote against Dean. Liberals understand intellectually that these comments are considered offensive by others, but they don’t feel the offense viscerally.

In a general election, my bet is that all of these quotes would hurt Dean, but his defense of the Bush-knew-about-9/11 theory—”I acknowledged that I did not believe the theory I was putting out”—will hurt the most. A politician who thinks it’s OK to pass along a monstrous allegation he doesn’t believe, even with a disclaimer, will have a hard time running as a straight talker.

4. Sealed records. Lieberman spent several minutes quarreling with Dean about whether Dean should unseal all records from his governorship. Dean replied that such an indiscriminate release might expose closeted gays who had written to him during Vermont’s consideration of civil unions for gay couples. Lieberman said some records could be kept private, Dean said a judge should decide which records, and the exchange went on and on. If you’re getting confused, that’s the point. This dispute is way too complex to change people’s votes. If we knew what Dean was hiding, we’d care. But as it stands, this is a procedural complaint in search of a substantive one.

5. Washington Democrats. I’ve scolded Dean for bashing Democratic centrists, but when Edwards, Gephardt, and Kerry try to explain pro-Bush votes they regret, you can see what he’s talking about. In Sunday’s debate, Kerry blamed Bush for not implementing the “No Child Left Behind” education law as promised. Edwards agreed, “We put too much faith in a Bush administration administering that policy.” Gephardt said, “I voted for the bill because I thought it was the only way to get money into public education under a Bush presidency.” Gephardt gave a similar account of his decision to support President Reagan’s 1981 tax cut: “I tried to pass an alternative. … We didn’t get it done. And then I had to face a vote of, ‘Are you for a tax cut at all or not?’ I voted for it.” Gephardt added that he had supported the Iraq war resolution based on the assurance of CIA Director George Tenet that Iraq posed a serious weapons threat. At every turn, Gephardt and his colleagues pleaded that they had trusted Bush too much and that they had accepted, to their regret, what the GOP defined as the best deal Democrats could get. That’s pretty much Dean’s case against them.

6. Dennis, more! I have two questions for the Dean campaign. First, are you paying Dennis Kucinich to stay in the race? And second, why not? He’s gold for you every time he opens his mouth. In this forum, Kucinich took three shots at Dean. He rebuked Dean for refusing to pull out of NAFTA and the WTO. Then he forced Dean to explain why Dean would leave U.S. troops in Iraq rather than pull out immediately. (Answer: to keep Iraq from falling into chaos and becoming an al-Qaida nest.) Then he demanded to know why Dean was proposing a pragmatic, politically viable health-insurance program instead of a utopian one. Perhaps for a small payment Kucinich could be persuaded to attack Dean for opposing gay marriage, supporting the death penalty, and accepting the divinity of Jesus.

7. National security. Dean has called this the hole in his résumé, and he spent much of the debate trying to fill it. Answering a question on trade, he said he had supported China’s admission to the WTO on “national security” grounds. He described al-Qaida’s potential infiltration of Iraq as a “major national security problem.” He also affirmed, “If I was the president and the troops had Osama in their sights, we would shoot to kill.” I loved the “we,” coming from a guy whose closest experience to gunfire is being endorsed by the National Rifle Association.

What Dean lacks is an answer to the argument, made by Lieberman in this debate and by Bush elsewhere, that sometimes you have to beat up one bad guy to persuade others to come along peacefully. As Lieberman put it, Americans “have sent the message to all the other terrorists and tin horn dictators there, like Qaddafi and even like the Iranians, who are beginning to cooperate, that we mean business.” Dean pointed out that Saddam Hussein wasn’t the bad guy most dangerous to us, but he never explained how pursuing Saddam kept us from pursuing Bin Laden. Absent such an explanation, most voters figure Bush was right to target both.

8. Religion and the South. Having grown up in east Texas, I cringe for Dean every time he fumbles for a friendly word about the South. Here’s what he said Sunday: “I have a lot of friends from the South. In the South, people do integrate religion openly, easily into their lives, both black Southerners and white Southerners. I understand that if I’m going to campaign for the presidency of the United States, I have to be comfortable in the milieu that other Americans are comfortable. … I plan to learn how to do that.”

I hardly know where to begin laughing at this comment. Maybe it’s the part where Dean says some of his best friends are Southerners. Or maybe it’s the way he speaks of them as foreigners. Or maybe, as my colleague Chris Suellentrop suggests, it’s the way Dean talks about Southern habits in the third person, like an adult speaking to another adult about children who are in the room. Or maybe it’s the way Dean blurts out that this is all political, just as Bush’s dad used to say things like “Message: I care,” and “When Barbara holds an AIDS baby, she’s showing a certain compassion for family.” Or maybe it’s the very Bush-41 way Dean inserts and impeccably pronounces the word “milieu.” Perhaps Dean intends to run as the son of a milieu worker.

9. Tax cuts. This is the umpteenth time Dean was attacked in a debate for proposing to raise taxes on the middle class by rolling back all of Bush’s tax cuts, as opposed to the tax cuts that went to the top brackets. And for the umpteenth time, he had no effective answer. He ducked, dodged, and obfuscated as Michele Norris of National Public Radio demanded to know whether he would repeal Bush’s middle-class tax cuts and what tax relief, if any, he would offer instead. Dean’s latest response—denying that the tax cut was a tax cut, since state and local taxes, tuition, and health-insurance costs went up at the same time—is so strained that Edwards, Kerry, and Lieberman took turns mocking his imperviousness to reality. Only Gephardt stood with him. “I agree with Howard on this,” said Gephardt. “I am ready to say to the people of the country, ‘If you like the Bush tax cuts, vote for Bush.’” If Dean goes into the general election with that message, they will.