Norm Solomon on Candidate Howard Dean
|August 26, 2003||Posted by Staff under The Progress Report|
The 2004 Presidential Race: Dean Hopes
The Progress Report is not going to spend oodles of time and attention on U.S. presidential candidates long before 2004. There are more immediate and important issues to discuss. Once in a while, however, we notice a particularly interesting item — here, for example, Norm Solomon gives a detailed and noteworthy analysis of candidate Howard Dean.
Progressives and the Dean Campaign
by Norman Solomon
Let’s take Howard Dean at his word: “I was a triangulator before Clinton was a triangulator. In my soul, I’m a moderate.”
Plenty of evidence backs up that comment by the former Vermont governor to the New York Times Magazine a few months ago. The self-comparison with Clinton is apt. “During his five two-year terms as governor,” the magazine noted, “Dean was proud to be known as a pragmatic New Democrat, in the Clinton mold, boasting that neither the far right nor the far left had much use for him.”
Of course, what a mainstream publication is apt to call “the far left” often includes large progressive constituencies. In the battle for the ’04 Democratic presidential nomination, Dean clearly finds grassroots progressives to be quite useful for his purposes. But is he truly useful for ours?
This summer, many news stories have identified Howard Dean with the left. But Dean’s actual record verifies this assessment from University of Vermont political science professor Garrison Nelson: “He’s really a classic Rockefeller Republican — a fiscal conservative and social liberal.” After seven years as governor, the Associated Press described Dean as “a clear conservative on fiscal issues” and added: “This is, after all, the governor who has at times tried to cut benefits for the aged, blind and disabled, whose No. 1 priority is a balanced budget.”
Economic justice has been a much lower priority. During the early 1990s, Dean spearheaded a new “workfare” state law requiring labor from welfare recipients. The Vermont program later won praise as more humane “welfare reform” than what occurred in most other states. But in the summer of 1996, Dean put his weight behind the final push for President Clinton’s national “welfare reform” law — a draconian measure, slashing at an already shabby safety-net while forcing impoverished mothers to work low-wage jobs.
While some other Democrats angrily opposed Clinton’s welfare reform, it won avid support from Dean. “Liberals like Marian Wright Edelman are wrong,” he insisted. “The bill is strong on work, time limits assistance and provides adequate protection for children.” Dean co-signed a letter to Clinton calling the measure “a real step forward.”
Gov. Dean did not mind polarizing with poor people, but he got along better with the corporate sector. “Conservative Vermont business leaders praise Dean’s record and his unceasing efforts to balance the budget, even though Vermont is the only state where a balanced budget is not constitutionally required,” Business Week reported in its August 11 (2003) edition. “Moreover, they argue that the two most liberal policies adopted during Dean’s tenure — the ‘civil unions’ law and a radical revamping of public school financing — were instigated by Vermont’s ultraliberal Supreme Court rather than Dean.” The magazine added: “Business leaders were especially impressed with the way Dean went to bat for them if they got snarled in the state’s stringent environmental regulations.”
According to Business Week, “those who know him best believe Dean is moving to the left to boost his chances of winning the nomination.” A longtime Dean backer named Bill Stenger, a Vermont Republican who’s president of Jay Peak Resort, predicted: “If he gets the nomination, he’ll run back to the center and be more mainstream.”
Dean supporters can point to real pluses in his record; he accomplished some positive things in Vermont, including programs for the environment and health care. During the past year, on a wide range of issues, his tough criticisms of the Bush administration have often been articulate. And many Dean activists are glad to be supporting a candidate who came out against the war on Iraq.
Howard Dean does deserve some credit as a foe of the war. Yet it would be a mistake to view him as an opponent of militarism.
Dean seems to agree. During an August 23 interview with the Washington Post, he said: “I don’t even consider myself a dove.”
I found it conspicuous that Dean did not include the word “Iraq” in the 26-minute speech he gave at his official campaign kickoff in late June (at a time when criticism of the war was generally receding, just before the uproar over Bush’s State-of-the-Union deception on the Niger uranium forgery). But some Dean supporters pointed out that the speech had antiwar themes — for example, declaring that “we are not to conquer and suppress other nations to submit to our will” and denouncing the Bush team for “a form of unilateralism that is even more dangerous than isolationism.” However, such rhetoric — much of which has become boilerplate among several mainstream Democratic candidates — is not as impressive as it might appear at first glance.
What if a Washington-driven war is not “unilateral”? What if the U.N. Security Council can be carrot-and-sticked into a supportive stance? What about “multilateral” wars — on Iraq in 1991, on Yugoslavia in 1999, on Afghanistan — that gained wide backing from other governments? Dean expresses support for such wars.
Meanwhile, Dean has declared his opposition to a pullout of U.S. troops from Iraq — as though what the Pentagon is doing there now doesn’t amount to continuation of the war he opposed. “We cannot permit ourselves to lose the peace in Iraq,” Dean was saying in August. “We cannot withdraw from Iraq.” But given the illegitimacy of the war on Iraq, what legitimate right does the U.S. government have to keep military control of Iraq? And isn’t verbiage about not wanting to “lose the peace” a classic rhetorical way to rationalize continuation of war by the conquering army?
During a recent interview, reported in the Washington Post on August 25, Dean emphasized that his opposition to the war on Iraq should not be confused with opposing the current — and future — occupation of Iraq. “Now that we’re there, we’re stuck,” he said. While Dean reiterated that the war was “foolish” and “wrong,” he staked out a position that the Post described as “whoever will be elected in 2004 has to live with it.” Dean said: “We have no choice. It’s a matter of national security. If we leave and we don’t get a democracy in Iraq, the result is very significant danger to the United States.”
Dean does not give much indication that he wants to challenge Uncle Sam’s imperial capabilities. On the contrary: Dean has opposed cutting the budget for routine U.S. military expenditures that now add up to well over $1 billion per day. And while his campaign kickoff speech stated that “there is a fundamental difference between the defense of our nation and the doctrine of preemptive war espoused by this administration,” surely Dean knows — or should know — that much of the Pentagon’s budget has absolutely nothing to do with “defense of our nation.”
Actually, Dean has gone out of his way to distance himself from a straightforward cut-the-military-budget position that should be integral to any progressive candidacy. At a forum this summer, another presidential candidate, Rep. Dennis Kucinich, said that “the only way we’re really going to close the (digital) divide in this country is to start cutting the Pentagon budget and put that money into education.” Dean’s response was notable: “I don’t agree with Dennis about cutting the Pentagon budget when we’re in the middle of a difficulty with terror attacks.”
As if the huge Pentagon budget could not be appreciably cut without making us more vulnerable to “terror attacks”!
Overall, the problem with puffing up Dean — or claiming that he represents progressive values — goes beyond a failure of truth-in-labeling. It also involves an insidious redefinition, in public discourse, of what it means to be progressive in the first place.
Dean activists like to say that their man has the best chance of beating Bush next year. But supporters of almost every Democratic presidential hopeful say the same thing — and, like Dean’s partisans, have scant basis for making the claim. In fact, it’s mere conjecture that Dean would be the nominee most likely to defeat Bush.
On a full range of issues — from international trade to health care to labor rights to welfare to criminal justice and the drug war to federal spending priorities to environmental protection to gay rights to the death penalty to foreign policy — Dean’s positions are markedly inferior to Kucinich’s platform. So why not battle to get as many Democratic convention delegates as possible for Kucinich? Granted, he’s very unlikely to be nominated. But a hefty Kucinich delegate count would be a strong progressive statement within the Democratic Party and would provide a louder national megaphone for the values that we share. Kucinich speaks for progressives on virtually every issue. In sharp contrast, Dean does not.
I admire the creativity and commitment that many activists have brought to their work for Dean. Yet his campaign for the nomination offers few benefits and major pitfalls. If Dean becomes the Democratic presidential candidate next year, at that point there would be many good reasons to see him as a practical tool for defeating Bush. But in the meantime, progressive energies and support should go elsewhere.
Norman Solomon is co-author of “Target Iraq: What the News Media Didn’t Tell You.” For an excerpt and other information, go to: www.contextbooks.com/new.html#target
Tell your views to the Progress Report!