Election 2004  
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The Lessons of Howard Dean

The former presidential contender looks back on his race and assesses the role of the media, the importance of supporting Kerry, and whether Bush would go quietly.
 
 
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Howard Dean's campaign for the Democratic Presidential nomination stirred the passions of millions of people. It was a progressive, grassroots campaign that was anti-war at its core and anti-establishment in its orientation. The former Vermont governor may not have been as progressive as his followers, but he seemed to move toward them during the run-up to the primaries. And he distinguished himself with his candor. Though his campaign foundered in the cornfields of Iowa (with a push and a shove from the mainstream media), Dean did not give up his hope of establishing an enduring organization to carry forward some of his goals.

That organization is Democracy for America. It hopes to elect candidates around the country, and it vows to promote grassroots democracy, to campaign for progressive policies, and to fight against "the far right wing and their radical, divisive policies, and the selfish special interests who for too long have dominated politics." I had the following telephone interview with Dean on April 19. He was his old blunt self.

What happened to your campaign in hindsight?

Howard: Oh, I haven't spent a lot of time delving into all that. Everybody makes mistakes, but probably the biggest one was the spat with Gephardt at the end. He attacked us, and we chose to respond to him.

Is going negative a response that doesn't work anymore?

It always works, but never in a multicandidate race. The ones who aren't going negative get the benefit.

There is some speculation, perhaps idle in the press, that you were self-sabotaging, that you really didn't want to win, and the closer you came to getting the nomination, the more gaffes you committed.

That was pretty silly. That's one of the problems with the media. There's a lot of opinion pieces under the guise of news, and once one person comes up with it, it gets repeated. Most of that started out in gossip columns in The Washington Post. The idea that someone is going to spend two years and $50 million and doesn't really care is pretty silly.

What do you make of the way the press treated you?

I think the press in general is a failed institution in this country. For two reasons. This has nothing to do with the race. I'm not sure it would have made any difference. But the biggest problem with the media is first that 90 percent of Americans get their news from eleven corporations so that the loyalty in the editorial staff and higher up is principally to the shareholders rather than to the public. And the second problem is that entertainment has supplanted news value.

A lot of your supporters feel the press had it in for you, or did you in. Do you agree?

You know, I don't know. I think the older supporters may feel that way. The younger supporters tend to ignore the press. The pitfall of what's happening in the media is if you're under thirty, you get your news from the Internet and The Daily Show, and there's not much discrimination between what they find on the front page of The New York Times and what they find on the Internet. That's not a bad thing, in the sense that people don't get spoon-fed anymore.

The Daily Showmay be savvier than some of that other stuff.

Oh, I don't know, I don't get to watch The Daily Show.

I don't think there's much legitimacy to that. I'm sure there were personal factors involved, but I'm not one who buys the notion of a media conspiracy. I think there are different views in the media, from Fox News to The New York Times, from The Weekly Standard to The Nation. But I don't think there's an ideological conspiracy in the media to keep certain candidates out. I really don't.

Can any candidate tell the truth on a controversial topic like the capture of Saddam Hussein and not get burned?

I don't really think that hurt me all that much. Most people in America knew it was true. I think the media is very much like the inside-the-Beltway crowd. They're not average Americans themselves. They're under a lot of pressure from editors and publishers. And I don't think they relate to most ordinary people. When I said that I didn't think the capture of Saddam Hussein made us any safer, though I congratulated the troops for doing it, average Americans thought to themselves, yeah, that's probably right. And certainly, two weeks later they certainly thought that was right since we had just lost an additional thirty troops.

Or they've got to think it's right now.

Yeah, I think they do. I'm not a subscriber to any of that stuff being what hurt the campaign. I'm really not. The concerted attacks of the other candidates in the media didn't help, but I think it was more a function of, first of all, Iowans not wanting to be told who the frontrunner was by the media and others, and second, the Gephardt attack, and then the mistake we made by responding to it.

Are politicians free to chart out an independent course on another issue: Israeli-Palestinian politics? You said the United States should play "a neutral role" and then all the other candidates dumped on you for that.

Politicians are basically free to do what they want. Politicians who believe they have to craft every position in order to win will lose. Our campaign was not about crafting positions in order to win. Interestingly enough, I agree with the Israeli assassination policy because I believe Hamas is a terrorist organization, but I strongly disagree with the Israeli policy on keeping large chunks of the West Bank. That's not going to lead to peace. And I don't mind saying that. I would have said so if I was still a candidate. The fact is, Israel has a right to defend itself, first, and secondly, in the long run if you want peace, the Palestinians have to feel that they've been fairly dealt with. And I think that taking large chunks of the West Bank is not going to resolve the problem.

You disagree with Kerry on that?

I do, I do.

I'm certainly not going to spend my time criticizing John Kerry. I'm trying to get John Kerry elected. He would be a far better President than George Bush, so whatever differences we may have are very small compared to the differences I have with George Bush. And I plan to vigorously support Kerry.

But Kerry doesn't excite a lot of people at the progressive grassroots. Why are you advising activists to vote for him instead of considering Ralph Nader or whomever the Green Party puts up?

Because the stakes are too big. For those of us who believe in health care for every American, it's very clear that John Kerry is going to bring us closer to that than George Bush is. For those of us who believe in supporting the environment, Kerry's record is far better than George Bush's on the environment. Sometimes from the point of view of the activist, the perfect becomes the enemy of the good, and I think there would be a huge price to be paid by America's working people and by small children and by minorities if George Bush is reelected for a second term. The only person who can be President other than George Bush is John Kerry, so it makes no sense to vote for Ralph Nader. This is one election where a vote for Ralph Nader is essentially a vote for George Bush.

But don't you think people have the right to vote for whomever they want?

People absolutely have the right. I've played no part in trying to keep Ralph Nader off the ballot. Nor will I. I think that would be a big mistake. But I do plan on playing a vigorous part to convince these people to vote for John Kerry.

How scary is the prospect of another four years of George Bush?

It's devastating for the country: a half-trillion dollar deficit for every single year, God knows what additional military adventures are being planned that we're not being told about, the worst environmental President since the League of Conservation Voters has been evaluating them, half a million children have lost their health care. The legacy of George Bush will be far worse than any President in my lifetime, and we can't afford another four years of this.

People often ask me, "Will Bush give up power if he loses?" Do you have any fear that he would not go quietly?

My biggest fear is that the election will be stolen again as it was in Florida by the elimination of large numbers of the African American community from the voter rolls by a private company contracting with the state. The election was clearly not won by George Bush in Florida, and then the Supreme Court put politics above loyalty to the country. So that's my greatest fear: not that George Bush won't go quietly according to the law, but that before the law gets enforced there will be a great deal of fiddling with it.

What can be done to stop that?

I've spoken to John Kerry about that, and he's going to have some legal teams in Florida. And I think we clearly have to deal with the voting machine issue: The Diebold voting machines have been undermined by their own chairman, who said he was going to do everything he could to get George Bush reelected. We've got to have legal advice, and we've got to have technical advice to make sure that those voting machines, which cannot be recounted, are used properly.

What is the goal of Democracy for America?

My goal is to elect as many grassroots candidates around the country as possible. We have over 400 people running for office: school board, county commissioner, mayor, state legislator. And I want to support them. Obviously, I want to support Democrats, particularly progressive Democrats who supported us. And if we can, to take back the House and Senate, which we're not that far from doing.

What do you see yourself doing? Are you interested in joining the Kerry Administration if offered?

Well, you know, that's up to John Kerry, not up to me. I'm interested in getting John Kerry elected President. And then I'm interested in doing whatever I can to see that Democrats retain Democratic values. And the thing I'm most interested in is health insurance for everybody. We're the only country in the industrialized world that doesn't have that, and we need that.

How do we get it?

It's not hard. Interestingly enough, Kerry's plan and my plan are very similar. What we did was based on what we did in Vermont. We really can get there. We don't have to take away people's choice of doctors, or any of those things that Harry and Louise talked about ten years ago. Certainly, Clinton's attempt to get universal health care didn't work. But this can be done within the context of what we have now. Then we can talk about changing it. We should get everybody in the system first, and then worry about changing it later. We've tried to do it in the reverse several times, and it's failed.

Looking back on the campaign, what did you learn?

I learned that the American people are pretty great people. And they are just poorly served by their leadership, and Washington's very much out of touch with the struggles of ordinary Americans. We're not done trying to change that. DemocracyforAmerica.com will be around a lot longer than November, one way or another. My hope is that we'll have a Democratic Administration, and then we'll hold their feet to the fire so they start performing for people who put them there.

Matthew Rothschild is Editor of The Progressive.