News & Politics

The Progressive Case for Howard Dean

Voting Green isn't necessarily the most effective way to achieve Green policies. Voting Dean may be progressives' best move toward victory in 2004.
I passionately supported the Greens in 2000 and 2002. I traveled 125 miles to see Dennis Kucinich speak when he came to Los Angeles in May, and had the pleasure of introducing him to a crowd of several hundred when he visited Santa Barbara recently. Kucinich is a guiding light in Congress and, of the nine Democratic presidential contenders, his views most closely mirror my own.

Yet I won't be voting for Kucinich in the Democratic primaries, nor will I vote Green in the general elections. My support will go to Howard Dean.

Yes, I've read the unfavorable commentaries on Howard Dean by writers whose opinions I greatly respect, like Norman Solomon and Alexander Cockburn. And yes, I know that I disagree with some critical components of Dean's platform. Progressives should be well aware that they're going to disagree on a range of issues with every individual who has a chance at being in the White House two years from now. Our choice is not between Howard Dean and the-even-better-candidate who-has-a-shot-at-winning the-Democratic-nomination and-defeating-George-Bush; that other candidate doesn't exist. Neither Kucinich nor Al Sharpton nor Carol Moseley Braun nor any Green will be President. Progressives should incorporate these realities into their electoral strategy, however disappointing they may be.

In a recent column, Norman Solomon criticizes "liberal Democrats [who] routinely sacrifice principles and idealism in the name of electoral strategy," and then argues that Greens are practicing the reverse strategy -- "principled idealism" without a coherent electoral strategy. But in the same column he remarks, "Few present-day Green Party leaders seem willing to urge that Greens forego the blandishments of a presidential campaign. The increased attention -- including media coverage -- for the party is too compelling to pass up." If this latter analysis is accurate, the impetus to run a Green presidential candidate has come not from principled idealism but a rather inconsiderate self-indulgence.

In any case, the role of ideals in the voting booth is hazy. Voting Green isn't necessarily the most effective way to achieve Green policies. More importantly, supporting and voting for Democratic candidates is in no way a personal affirmation of the Democratic Party platform. It is, in part, a recognition of Duverger's Law -- one of the few reliable "laws" in the social sciences -- which states that American-style, winner-take-all, plurality voting systems produce political structures intractably dominated by two parties. Moreover, it is a recognition that the Democratic Party is simply one network among many (albeit an incredibly powerful one) through which those seeking fundamental political change in the United States can act. Progressives ought to engage the Democratic Party in the same way that we engage any powerful institution; we should creatively test the limits of reform and attempt to produce change that will assist us in our own wider struggles.

The goal of progressives in the coming months, then, should be to continue what we're doing now -- organizing, developing alternative social, economic, and environmental programs, and working to raise the national profile of our allies in the public sphere -- while supporting Howard Dean and helping him win the primary and general elections. We have to keep close in mind what our country and our world will look like if George W. Bush's administration captures another term and can carry out its agenda without being restrained by reelection considerations. In what will likely be the most divisive and bitterly contested presidential election in decades, let's not use our precious energy and resources on candidates with no chance of defeating Bush. Rather, let's make sure to elect a candidate who, like Dean, at least supports publicly financed elections, instant run-off voting, and a constitutional amendment declaring that political contributions are not free speech, so that we directly strike at the structural stultification of our electoral system that forces us to limit our choices in the first place.

Why, of the establishment candidates, should progressives choose Dean? His platform is as good or better than those of Dick Gephardt and John Kerry, the only other two candidates with a hope at gaining the Democratic nod. Vastly more important, however, is the fact that Dean's web-focused campaign has the potential to revolutionize the way American politics operates, and progressives ought to be taking note.

Unfortunately, most left-leaning commentators have written about Dean as though their responsibility were to lead the well-intentioned but misguided progressive flock away from his campaign, implicitly and sometimes explicitly asserting that supporters have jumped on Dean's bandwagon without seriously considering his record. Antiwar.com's Anthony Gancarski questioned whether "Dean supporters are following their candidate blindly, without knowledge of the full spectrum of his positions." Potential Green presidential candidate Carol Miller told NBC News that she feels "sorry for those people [Dean's supporters] when they learn who the real Howard Dean is."

Putting aside the presumptuousness of such sentiments, they're also wildly ironic: The overwhelming majority of claims that Dean is a far-left candidate come from conservatives who are clearly attempting to marginalize one of the two prominent Democratic candidates. Almost without exception, right-wing commentaries on Dean compare his campaign to McGovern's and brand Dean as an "extreme leftist" whose support is built predominantly on activists' antiwar sentiment. Rush Limbaugh recently warned his listeners about a shift he perceived in mainstream reports on Dean: "Have you noticed how some in the press are starting to say Howard Dean is not that liberal? Keep a sharp eye out for that, because the left knows that being a far left, progressive liberal is a killer, so they're going to try to paint the picture of Dean as a moderate." Surprisingly enough, one of the few prominent progressives to make a substantive link between Dean and Kucinich was Ralph Nader, who noted that Bush "is very vulnerable but not if you campaign the way the major candidates -- except for Dean and Kucinich -- are campaigning."

There is, in fact, good reason to believe that progressive supporters of Dean are well aware of his record, and are choosing to support him despite its flaws. As American Prospect senior editor Garance Franke-Ruta points out, "the most important part of the Dean message is that it makes [supporters] feel that they have the power to control their own destiny. ... This sense of renewed personal power and hope seemed more important to most posters [to Dean's weblog] than any specific policies that Dean supports or does not support, and few on the threads agreed wholeheartedly with the former governor on all his positions. Most recognized that he is a centrist who is fiscally conservative and socially liberal."

Critically, Dean's progressive supporters share a visceral passion to purge the White House of George Bush and his dangerous administration. They seem to agree with Bernard Weiner of the Crisis Papers, who admits that "from a long-term historical perspective, the Democrats and Republicans look and behave virtually alike. But in the real world, where most people live, there is just enough of a difference to justify a vote for a reasonable Democratic candidate for President. One's sense of personal 'purity' might be slightly compromised by voting for the Democratic candidate and thus helping to perpetuate a system that is not as uncorrupted as we would all like. But I don't think we can afford that self-involved luxury in 2004; this election decision is simply too vital, a matter of life and death for so many around the world."

This all said, the weaknesses in Dean's platform must be accounted for and seriously assessed.

Dealing With Dean's Downsides

Military Spending: Dean has rightfully aroused anger and skepticism from progressives with his claims that he will not reduce military spending. It appears, however, that these statements are a political dodge of sorts to avoid media characterizations of Dean as the "antiwar candidate" and "weak on national security." Dean has told audiences that he would not reduce military spending but rather "redirect" it toward the development and implementation of renewable energy technology (an issue he ties to defense), homeland security measures to fund local first responders, inspect container ships and protect nuclear sites (a move that Alexander Cockburn himself recently called on Bush to make), and the purchase of old nuclear materials in Russia.

Military/Foreign Policy: Dean has called Bush's policy of renewed nuclear weapons development "insane" and opposes every significant component of "Star Wars" missile defense, declaring that any missile defense programs he would support will at least remain in compliance with the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. Dean also supports (with provisions, in some cases) the comprehensive nuclear test ban, the Law of the Sea Treaty, the Biological Warfare Convention Protocol and the International Criminal Court (a website for the United Nations Association of the United States lists Dean as an "outspoken supporter" of the ICC). Dean supports signing the 1997 Landmine Treaty and believes that a similar treaty should be used to ban cluster bombs.

Norman Solomon mistakenly took Dean to task because "at his official campaign kickoff, Dean gave a 26-minute speech and didn't mention Iraq at all. It was a remarkable performance from someone who has spent much of the last year pitching himself as some kind of antiwar candidate." Despite the strength of this rebuke, Solomon failed to mention that Dean's speech contained nine paragraphs dealing with foreign policy, and that far from avoiding Iraq, Dean used the Iraq invasion to address a broader theme. Among other things, Dean declared: "Since the time of Thomas Paine and John Adams, our founders implored that we were not to be the new Rome. We are not to conquer and suppress other nations to submit to our will. ... We must rejoin the world community. America is far stronger as the moral and military leader of the world than we will ever be by relying solely on military power. ... [T]here is a fundamental difference between the defense of our nation and the doctrine of preemptive war espoused by this administration. The President's group of narrow-minded ideological advisors are undermining our nation's greatness in the world. They have embraced a form of unilateralism that is even more dangerous than isolationism. ... [T]hey would present our face to the world as a dominant power prepared to push aside any nation with which we do not agree." Since the speech, Dean has consistently spoken out on Iraq and many of the occupation policies. He has called on Bush administration officials to resign for misleading the American public, and continues to criticize those Democrats who voted for the Iraq resolution. He received significant critical press after saying that "the ends don't justify the means," when asked about the deaths of Saddam Hussein's sons. On Dean's official website, one can find commentaries by campaign staffers like Ezra Klein condemning Bush's policies that force young, poor Americans to "fight and die in wars of choice."

Israel/Palestine: As Mid East analysts Ahmed Nassef and Stephen Zunes have pointed out, Dean's positions regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are very disappointing for those who seek a just and sustainable peace in the region. Unfortunately, they're also standard amongst the Democratic presidential hopefuls. All nine candidates essentially toe the same line: they support a vague "two-state solution," the removal of settlements (without details as to how many or when), and the cessation of terrorism, and they concede that further details will have to be worked out by the relevant parties. JTA, a Jewish news service, recently had a piece focusing on a hawkish Democratic fundraiser named Peter Buttenwieser, who notes that the "litmus test for me is a candidate has to be good on Israel. ... But all of these candidates are good on Israel." This pattern is hardly new. Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair wrote that Paul Wellstone, "in common with ninety-eight other senators, [has been] craven on Israel." Even Kucinich chose not to join nearly two dozen fellow representatives in voting against a strongly worded May 2003 House resolution that "supported Israel's incursions into Palestinian territories, and apparently endorsed as justifiable the brutality and bloodshed the Israeli Army inflicted on the unarmed civilians there," according to prominent English-language daily Arab News.

Trade: Dean has pledged to renegotiate current trade agreements (including NAFTA) and oppose new trade agreements that do not require the enforcement of internationally recognized workers' rights and environmental standards. He will also "oppose any further rounds of the World Trade Organization agreements that do not make substantial progress on incorporating" these rights and standards. When asked about policy toward Africa and the Caribbean Basin at the NAACP Presidential Forum, Dean voiced his support for debt forgiveness and remarked that "we need to get the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank off the backs of these countries. ... [T]he conditions that are attached mean that the whole country depends on a free market system in order to get food to the poorest people in that country. It doesn't make any sense at all. ... [N]ow that we're imposing a Western economic model on African countries, we find there's famine. What a big surprise. We need to work cooperatively with African governments instead of telling them what to do." Dean was awarded the inaugural Paul Wellstone Award by the AFL-CIO in January 2003 for "Exceptional Support of Workers' Freedom to Form Unions," and maintained a 100% rating with the AFL-CIO's Committee on Political Education while serving as a state representative. He is also a vocal proponent of workplace democratization, in which employees own the majority of a firm's stock.

Death Penalty: John Kerry opposes capital punishment, while Dean favors it for individuals who commit acts of terrorism or who murder young children or police officers. One wonders, though, whether Kerry's position is really preferable. He told NBC's Tim Russert that he opposes the death penalty "because I'm for a worse punishment. I think it is worse to take somebody and put them in a small cell for the rest of their life, deprived of their freedom, never to be paroled. Now, I think that's tougher. ... I don't think that -- you know, dying is scary for a while, but in the end, the punishment is gone," and he couples his opposition with desires for harder prison service commitments so we don't have "some cushy situation where they live off the fat of the land in prison." Either way, it should be noted that Dean did not "suddenly [abandon] his perfectly acceptable reasons for opposing the death penalty ... to express his support for the machinery of death -- a transparent bid for votes in the primary elections in southern states like South Carolina," as Alan Maass of the International Socialist Review writes. It is widely recognized that Dean's opinions on the death penalty began changing in 1994 after the Polly Klaas murder, and statements by Dean throughout his terms as Governor reflect this change in thinking. Dean strongly supports the Innocence Protection Act and has said that he will establish a Presidential commission to "analyze the causes of wrongful convictions around the country and recommend additional reforms at the federal and state level."

Gun Legislation: The "A" rating that Dean has received from the NRA is chilling, but it has to be taken in context. As Lance Bukoff points out, "the NRA rating system is actually rather 'passive' in its assessment of politicians. Put simply but accurately, an 'A' rating is 'earned' by not voting for or promoting any laws which would restrict gun ownership. Dean observes that Vermont is not NYC or LA or Philadelphia. Vermont is a state where gun violence does not occur in any way significant enough [in 2002, Vermont had five homicides] to warrant restrictive gun control laws, unless you take the deer's point of view, of course. So he says Vermont does not need them, and he did not sign any, and he did not promote any as a governor, and as a consequence he gets an 'A' rating from the NRA, but not because he shares a duck blind with NRA members. He goes further. He says he supports the Brady bill, he supports the assault gun ban, and he supports closing the gun show sale loopholes. And he also tells voters in states like New York, 'We don't need gun control laws in Vermont, but you probably do, and if that's the case you should make them.'"

Medicinal Marijuana: Dean's reputation as a hard-headed skeptic of medicinal marijuana belies his actual position, which is more nuanced (if a bit neurotic, presumably because of his experience as a doctor). Dean doesn't "believe the war on drugs is a criminal matter; it's a public health matter. I think to throw users in jail is silly." He recently told the Liberal Oasis that his "opposition to medical marijuana is based on science, not based on ideology. More specifically, I don't think we should single out a particular drug for approval through political means when we approve other drugs through scientific means. When I'm President, I will require the FDA to evaluate marijuana with a double blind study with the same kinds of scientific protocols that every other drug goes through. I'm certainly willing to abide by what the FDA says." After resisting a medicinal marijuana bill that had made its way through the Vermont legislature for the reasons stated above, Dean eventually did sign a bill in June 2002 that established a task force "to investigate and assess options for legal protections which will allow seriously ill Vermonters to use medical marijuana without facing criminal prosecution under Vermont law." The Marijuana Policy Project said the bill set "the wheels in motion for solid patient protection."

The Environment: Dean's Vermont "has one of the most progressive environmental programmes in America" according to the London Times. As former Vermont radio and television talk show host Jeff Kaufman points out, "During his decade in office, Governor Dean helped protect more land from development than all previous governors combined; ... he administered a 'best practices' agriculture plan that preserves land and water quality; he helped form the nation's first statewide energy efficiency utility (preventing more than one million tons of greenhouse gas emissions since 2000); and he championed a commuter rail system to lower traffic congestion and pollution while diminishing urban sprawl (in its last report on sprawl, the Sierra Club ranked Vermont as the second best state in America for land use planning)." Vermont also followed California's lead in establishing regulations on greenhouse gas emissions that go beyond standards set in the Kyoto Protocol. According to the New York Times, Dean "is calling for the auto industry to build cars that get 40 miles per gallon by 2015 and for 20 percent of the nation's electricity to come from renewable sources by 2020. ... [A]s president he would close the loophole that exempts sport utility vehicles from gas-mileage standards, ... make the Environmental Protection Agency cabinet level and work to re-establish the Clinton administration rules limiting roads in national forests." Even when Dean was judged less favorably on environmental issues, the executive director of the Vermont Natural Resources Council, Elizabeth Courtney, recognizes that pressing economic circumstances impacted his decisions ("in the early 90s the rest of the country seemed to be pulling out of the recession and Vermont seemed to be languishing in it") and acknowledges Dean's general qualities as governor: "fresh candor and intelligence. You always know where Howard Dean stands. He is candid and honest in his communications with Vermonters, and he is appreciated for that. He's also very bright, and he has a clear sense of his direction." The San Francisco Chronicle reported that "[executive director of the Sierra Club Carl] Pope said that although the Sierra Club had some disagreements with Dean's land-use policies, Dean did 'fabulous things in Vermont.'"

Fiscal Conservatism: It now seems that Dean's hardline fiscal policies have paid some dividends. While virtually every state in the nation cuts funding for vital social services, Vermont ended the fiscal year with a $10.4 million General Fund surplus. For this accomplishment, Stephen Klein, chief fiscal officer for the current Vermont legislature, says that "Dean gets a large amount of credit." But Dean isn't as fiscally conservative as was suggested by Paul Wellstone's former press secretary Jim Farrell. Farrell argued in The Nation that Dean "targeted for elimination the public financing provision of the state's campaign finance law," cut education spending, and proposed "deep cuts in Medicaid." These claims are all true, but Farrell leaves out critical details. Dean, who is a strong supporter of publicly financed campaigns, used the money from the public financing fund to help balance Vermont's budget only after a federal court judge ruled that the spending limits provision in the campaign finance law was unconstitutional, meaning that the fund would sit untouched. Facing large state deficits, Dean proposed cuts in the amount of state funds to education because "dramatic increases in property values" already had produced an education fund that was "flush to overflowing with money," according to the Associated Press. The proposal to cut Medicaid was hardly serious; it was made as a threat to force Vermont's legislature to pass a 75-cent tax on tobacco products that Dean desired (the tax revenues actually went to fund Medicaid), a move supported by Vermont's PIRG and all of the state's major medical associations. Also, Dean does not support raising the retirement age to 68 or 70.

Human Rights: Dean not only signed the first bill in the United States recognizing civil unions for same-sex couples, but did it six months before his gubernatorial election when it was opposed by two-thirds of Vermont's population. According to the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, Dean differs from top-ranked Kucinich and Braun only on the issue of gay marriage, and is unique among top-tier Democrats in supporting federally-enforced equal rights legislation and GLBT-supportive education policies (Kerry and Gephardt only support state-based civil union legislation and both voted for "an amendment to the Improving America's Schools Act prohibiting federal funds 'for instructional materials, instruction, counseling, or other services on school grounds, from being used for the promotion of homosexuality as a positive lifestyle alternative'").

Dean, who sat on the board of Planned Parenthood of Northern New England for five years, is perhaps the strongest Democratic candidate in regard to abortion rights. The New Republic's coverage of a presidential forum on abortion rights mentioned that "Dean took partial-birth abortion, NARAL's most controversial and difficult-to-defend position, and made it the centerpiece of his speech, insisting that the term itself was an artifice manufactured by the right. 'This is an issue about nothing,' he proclaimed to the most boisterous applause of the evening." Dean strongly opposes parental notification and implemented a program in Vermont that provides specialized child care, health services and home visitation to all families, regardless of income. He wants to sign the UN's 1979 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women and ratify the 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Apart from his platform and its flaws, however, Dean should be commended by progressives for accomplishing what social justice movements so often work toward and only rarely achieve -- his campaign is creatively utilizing the internet to facilitate large-scale independent organizing, and drawing significant numbers of new and disillusioned voters into the political process, getting many of them to contribute their time and energy away from the computer screen.

Dean's campaign has developed an infrastructure to support grassroots activism unmatched by any in American history. The uniquely interactive nature of the campaign "creates, embraces, enhances, validates, and rewards intimacy," as one supporter wrote on the campaign's weblog. Dean has dropped in on threads and message boards at unofficial websites set up by supporters and fielded any questions that were asked of him. Author David Weinberger, commenting on Dean's guest-blogging at Stanford law professor Larry Lessig's website, asked, "Has any presidential candidate ever in history been dropped into a free-for-all quite like this? Could it be any more different than Bush's scripted press conferences and tailored, crotch-enhancing photo opps? Democracy just got a little real-er." Even some establishment commentators recognize the fundamental reforms being rushed in by Dean's campaign. Dick Morris, hardly cheering on such changes, recently argued that the "larger message of the Dean candidacy is that the era of TV-dominated politics is coming to a close after 30 years. ... [T]he inevitable replacement of television with the Internet as the fundamental tool of political communication is destined to accelerate. The true answer to campaign-finance reform, the Internet will open a real possibility of a transfer of power to the people."

Dean has also demonstrated an impressive ability to draw supporters from diverse backgrounds. From the politically-marginalized to the politically-uninitiated, from registered independents (who have set up personal websites to help bring new independents into the fold) to McCain and Perot supporters upset with Bush's accelerated neo-imperialism and cultural conservatism (who have a website of their own), Dean's message is resonating widely. According to the progressive youth mag Wiretap, every campaign's "youth outreach efforts were routine and shallow" except for Dean's, which is far larger and designed so that youth "are not just a passive audience for campaign speeches, but enlisted as community organizers" addressing issues beyond Dean's campaign, like Bush's attack on the Teach for America program. In polls, Dean frequently leads his fellow Democrats by wide margins amongst independent voters and men, who are typically more likely to vote conservative. This information is fantastic for folks who support Dean but wonder about his electability. It's also great news for progressives in general, who should be clammoring to draw such a politically-diverse group of individuals into left-leaning web-based political activism. The internet is the progressives' optimal playing field: decentralized, free of the constraints of the mass media, perfect for alternative information dissemination and mass organizing. Individuals who are drawn to Dean's blogs and mailing lists can be introduced to the various and sundry sites providing news, op-eds, and activism opportunities for progressives.

"Patience and fortitude conquer all things," wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson. In pressing times, progressives have demonstrated great fortitude by committing themselves to institutions and social movements that addressed injustices theretofore neglected. Howard Dean is no holy grail, but amidst a trend in our country toward widespread political ignorance and a sort of corporatized proto-fascist nationalism, perhaps it is our patience that is needed now. What we have in Dean is a man who can articulate liberal positions intelligently, passionately, and commandingly, and who has the grassroots/netroots support and an appeal to diverse constituencies that will allow him to defeat George Bush. Let's join Dean's campaign, get on his e-mail lists, and spread the word.

Nico Pitney is a student activist based in southern California.

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