Is Howard Dean For Real? Well, Not Entirely

Posted January 24, 2003 at 3:46pm

Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean ought to do well in the Iowa Democratic caucuses — unless the anti-war folks out there find out where he really stands on Iraq.

As Des Moines Register columnist David Yepsen told me, Dean has Iowans “standing on chairs and shouting when he says, ‘I’m the only candidate who didn’t vote to go to war.’ He gets the pacifists all ginned up.” [IMGCAP(1)]

However, in a meeting last week with Roll Call editors and reporters, Dean said that if President Bush presented evidence that Saddam Hussein possesses weapons of mass destruction, “Then I’d go back to the U.N. and get a new resolution that [Hussein] either disarms in 60 days or we go in.”

Dean added, “The American people are willing to go to war in Iraq, I think, if the president makes the case. I don’t think he’s made the case.” He also said, “I would be surprised if [Hussein] didn’t have” chemical and biological weapons.

When informed of Dean’s statements at Roll Call, Yepsen said that Dean “doesn’t talk much out here about that 60-day stuff. I can’t say he’s never said it, but I’ve never heard it. It’s not part of his stump speech and it’s not what’s getting Iowans excited.”

So, what does this mean? It suggests that Dean, who advertises himself as a straight-shooter — virtually the only true straight-shooter in the 2004 Democratic race, in fact — might be just another opportunistic politician after all.

“I’m unambiguous,” he claimed. “I don’t flinch if I am defending my position. And I don’t try to mitigate my position just to satisfy different interest groups.”

This is in contrast to his chief rivals, all Members of Congress, who are “trained to nuance every position and offend as few people as possible.”

Dean said in a subsequent phone interview that “when asked” in Iowa, he has discussed his 60-day plan, though he acknowledged it’s not part of his stump speech.

“I’m not a pacifist,” he told me. “No one can run for president without being willing to use force to defend America’s interests.”

While Dean is refreshingly straightforward on some issues — he wants to repeal Bush’s tax cuts and has a clearly thought-out national health policy — there are other cases where he’s been less than “unambiguous.”

When he signed Vermont’s civil-union law for homosexuals, for instance, he did so “in private” because “it was an incredibly bitter, divisive issue and I knew that there were a number of decent people who opposed it.”

At Roll Call, Dean adamantly — even testily — refused to talk 2004 “process,” but then proceeded to discuss practically everything connected with “process” except how well he has to do in various ’04 primaries and caucuses to keep his campaign going.

“I’m not going to get into who’s hot and who’s not,” he said. But then he also said, “We do expect to do well in Iowa. Obviously [Missouri Rep.] Dick [Gephardt] will have the inside track and [Massachusetts Sen. John] Kerry’s got more money than the Lord.

“But I’ve been to Iowa 18 times now. Iowa and Vermont are incredibly similar. And New Hampshire is somewhat similar, as well, a rural state.”

Dean obviously hopes to repeat the 1976 performance of Jimmy Carter, the unknown Georgia ex-governor who took the Democratic field by surprise in Iowa and New Hampshire, and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who brought out independents and won New Hampshire in 2000.

“He’s trying to be Josiah Bartlet,” said a top Washington Democratic operative, referring to the ex-New Hampshire governor who rules the White House in NBC’s “The West Wing.”

“The only trouble is, Bartlet is charming as well as blunt and smart. I don’t think Dean shows very much charm or warmth.”

But he can be blunt and partisan, and that may prove charming to Democratic primary voters. He’s against all tax cuts, including those recommended by Democrats this year to stimulate the economy.

He’d cancel all $1.7 trillion of Bush’s 2001 tax cuts, using half the money to finance health insurance for all Americans and half to pay down the national debt.

His health plan is designed, he said, to pass Congress. So, he avoids employer mandates or government control and relies instead on expansion of existing Medicaid, Medicare and employer health plans to cover the population.

He denies he’s for government price controls of prescription drugs, but his plan probably would end up with such controls inasmuch as the Medicare system would run it and he’d permit imports from Canada, where prices are controlled.

Daringly, Dean says he would “begin a discussion” about Oregon-style assisted-suicide laws and other measures to limit care (and costs) at the end of people’s lives.

Though he’s the longest long shot, it’s not out of the question that he could get nominated. He certainly wowed some audiences in Washington last week.

But it’s hard to imagine that an advocate of tax increases, civil unions and public financing of political campaigns ever could get elected.

For that to happen, Bush would have to be next to unelectable — which means that the United States would have to be in terrible shape.