|Published on Wednesday, November 26, 2003 by The Nation
Why I'm for Dean
by William Greider
First, the rivals saw him as a McGovernite lefty from the 1960s. When that
didn't take, they decided to depict him as a right-wing clone of Newt
Gingrich who wants to dismantle Medicare and Social Security. Finally,
opponents sold political reporters on the story of Mr. Malaprop, an oddball
from tiny, liberal Vermont so insensitive to the nuances of American
politics his mouth will destroy him. Howard Dean surged ahead through all
this. The other candidates and witting collaborators in the press got him
wrong every time.
Howard Dean is an odd duck, certainly, in the milieu of the contemporary
Democratic Party. He is, I surmise, a tough and savvy politician of the old
school--a shrewd, intuitive pol who develops his own sense of where the
people are and where events are likely to take public opinion, then has the
guts to act on his perceptions. That approach--leading, it's called--seems
dangerously unscientific in this era of high-quality polling and focus
groups, the data interpreted for politicians by expensive consultants. The
press corps has not had much experience with Democrats of this type, so
reporters read Dean's style as emotional, possibly a character flaw. He
reminds me of olden days when Democrats were a more contentious bunch,
always fighting noisily among themselves and often with creative results.
The ubiquitous "party sources" have explained that Dean merely caught a
lucky break by declaring early and forcefully against the war on Iraq at a
time when Americans were overwhelmingly prowar. Who knew things might
change? The doctor knew.
A more pertinent question is, Why didn't other leading candidates see this
tragedy coming? Their reticence was symptomatic of the inert Washington
insiders, exceedingly cautious, indifferent to whatever roils the party's
rank and file, and always a few steps behind the curve. The explanation
that Washington candidates voted for the war on principle or were misled by
Bush doesn't help them. Their blindness to the potential consequences (now
unfolding) is another reason to be for Dean. He, meanwhile, speaks plainly
to the error of US imperialism. "America is not Rome. We do not dream of
empire. We dream of liberty for all."
The man also stands his ground in a fight. When someone jabs him, he jabs
back. Pundits describe this quality as dangerous, and no doubt it gets him
into trouble occasionally, but what a refreshing departure from the
rope-a-dope calculations of the Clinton era. This trait is what I like
about him most. In my experience, it's more revealing than a politician's
positions on issues. With issues, Dean is pretty much what he says: a
middle-of-the-road moderate, neither left nor right, though middle in
Vermont is liberal ground. As governor, he was skilled at maneuvering
through contending forces, sometimes angering both sides in the process.
I first observed these qualities during Dean's second-to-last term as
governor. Vermonters were inflamed--everyone was coming after him--when he
and Democratic legislators enacted the infamous Act 60, a
school-financing-equalization law that compelled the "gold towns" to share
their property-tax revenues with poorer townships. Faced with general
outrage, Dean barked back at the storm. The remark I remember reading in
the Rutland Herald went something like this: "I know why people are angry
at me. They've been getting away with low tax rates and well-financed
schools. They're not going to be able to do that anymore."
Wow, I thought. This is a different kind of politician--no ducking the
blame, no cute obfuscation. The law isn't perfect, Dean added. We will fix
it later if we have to. (They did.) Vermont progressives were upset, too,
because Dean had refused to consider raising income taxes to finance the
schools. His logic, however, was more liberal than it appeared. Raising
income taxes would put all the burden on Vermonters, many of whom are poor.
Raising property taxes--with a generous homestead exemption for full-time
residents--put the big hit on the out-of-state people who own so many
lovely vacation homes there. Dean did not explain this to the
"flatlanders," but we figured it out.
The governor has shown flashes of the same bluntness in his prime-time
campaigning. Last summer, he told a revealing story on himself--a
conversation with Robert Rubin, the former Treasury Secretary and Wall
Street's main money guy for Democrats. Rubin had warned that unless Dean
stopped attacking NAFTA and the multinationals for the migration of US
jobs, he couldn't raise contributions for him from the financial sector. As
Dean told it, "I said, 'Bob, tell me what your solution is.' He said, 'I'll
have to get back to you.' I haven't heard from him." What I like so much
about the story is that powerful, influential Bob Rubin pokes Dean in the
chest, and he pokes him back. Then Dean discloses the exchange to the
In the higher realms of politics, this is not done. But he is not one of
them. And this is no longer the era for "triangulation" between the
business-financial money patrons and the party's main constituencies. That
new spirit, more than any single issue, is what has drawn together Dean's
vibrant and growing base, buoying his candidacy with millions in small
contributions. Dean is opening the possibility of transforming
politics--shaking up the tired, timid old order, inviting plain-wrapper
citizens back into an active role--and that's why so many people, myself
included, are for him. Full disclosure: I am among the throngs who have
been invited to contribute "forward-looking ideas" to his campaign (I was
flattered to be asked and pleased to oblige, with no naïve expectations).
Dean, I suspect, learned in the up-close-and-personal politics of Vermont
that you don't win elections by keeping the people at a safe distance. You
can't do it in that state, even if you try. He governed with strong,
well-organized progressives and environmentalists on one flank,
conservative business interests on the other and a mass of native
working-class Vermonters who don't much care for either. Dean collected a
lot of lumps and resentments, many compromises and setbacks, in ten years
as governor. Insiders remember him as shifty and unreliable. But he also
learned how to stand his ground in a fight.
All that helps explain why the party establishment had a hard time
understanding the man and is so upset by the thought that he might be the
nominee. Corny as it sounds, he might actually bring voters back into the
story. Washington's smugness was shattered in the past few weeks as Dean
picked up pathbreaking endorsements from Representative Jesse Jackson Jr.
and SEIU and AFSCME, the two largest unions and heads-up, aggressive
organizations. Dean continues to up the ante for his rivals--calling for
reregulation of key industries and confronting the concentrated power of
corporations and wealth. These are solid liberal ideas others are afraid to
express so directly. The guy is a better politician than the insiders
imagined, indeed better attuned to this season than they are.
It's still early and Dean will be field-tested in the next few months, but
so will they. If the party establishment succeeds in derailing him or
declines to rally around him as the nominee, Democratic status as the
minority party may turn out to be a very long Vermont winter.
National affairs correspondent William Greider has been a political
journalist for more than thirty-five years. A former Rolling Stone and
Washington Post editor, he is the author of the national bestsellers One
World, Ready or Not, Secrets of the Temple, Who Will Tell The People and,
most recently, The Soul of Capitalism (Simon & Schuster).
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