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Bring On Deano

Howard Dean is a top-tier candidate for the Democratic nomination. So it's time the press started treating him like one--by taking his "straight talk" seriously.

12:00 AM, Jun 24, 2003 • By FRED BARNES
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HOWARD DEAN has fashioned a reputation as the straightforward Democratic candidate for president. And the media has bought the idea. Joe Klein writes in this week's Time that Dean, the former Vermont governor, has already "won the Straight Talk primary." He did this chiefly by loudly and unequivocally opposing the war in Iraq while some of his Democratic rivals waffled.

But the press is wrong about Dean. He appears to be no more straightforward or candid than most national politicians and less so than some. An hour-long grilling by Tim Russert on "Meet the Press" on Sunday should put the rest any notion of Dean's unique straightforwardness. Instead, he waffled on numerous issues and made wild or false statements on others.

Would he vote for the Medicare bill with a prescription drug benefit that is likely to pass Congress soon? Dean wouldn't say. Is he still for a balanced budget amendment? He said only that he's "tempted" to be for it. Should a gay marriage in Canada be recognized in the United States? He refused to give a responsive answer. Would he name the Democratic candidates who he said need a "backbone transplant"? No, he wouldn't.

At one point, Russert cited numbers from the Treasury Department on the impact of repealing all of President Bush's tax cuts, as Dean has advocated. The numbers hadn't been publicly released and were developed at Russert's request. "I don't believe them," Dean said. There was no indication Dean had studied Treasury's analysis or its methodology. He merely dismissed the numbers out of hand. That may be straight talk, but only in the service of evading an issue.

Dean's false statements included this: "Karl Rove and others have talked about going back to the McKinley era before there was any kind of social safety net in this country." Not true. What Rove has talked about is how the McKinley presidency touched off a Republican era in American politics. Rove would like Bush to begin a new era of Republican dominance--but he never said this should be done by removing the safety net.

Another Dean tack was to make an accusation, but then provide no evidence. "The real effect of the Bush tax cuts has actually been to raise taxes on most middle-class people and to cut their services," he declared. This is unlikely, since most of the Bush cuts have yet to go into effect. Even so, he cited no evidence. He also said: "If we continue following George Bush's military policy and defense policy, we will become a secondary military power." He offered no evidence for this either.

On economics, Dean said a balanced budget "is the key to turning the economy around, as Bill Clinton showed." Of course, Clinton didn't show this. And no president since Herbert Hoover has believed a balanced budget was the best economic catalyst. Dean said the Bush administration is "dismantling the New Deal," though the president is backing legislation now to add a new entitlement to Medicare, a prescription drug benefit.

So far in the campaign for the Democratic nomination, Dean has gotten away with things that few other candidates would be allowed to. He couldn't tell Russert how many active duty troops the American military has, nor how many are stationed in Iraq. "I don't think I need to know that to run in the Democratic party primary," Dean declared. ". . . You acquire military advisers who will tell you these things." Nonetheless, he insisted he knows that more American and allied troops are needed in Iraq and Afghanistan now.

Dean has firmly established himself as a top tier candidate for the Democratic nomination. This normally means that the press will begin to scrutinize that candidate's statements, proposals, and accusations--and challenge them if necessary. With Dean, that hasn't happened. But it's time for the scrutiny to begin.

Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.