The Magazine

The Appeal of Howard Dean

From the September 15, 2003 issue: Why he could be Bush's more dangerous opponent.

Sep 15, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 01 • By STEPHEN MOORE
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SEVERAL YEARS AGO an obscure Democratic governor from the politically inconsequential state of Vermont was the guest speaker at a Cato Institute lunch. His name was Howard Dean. He had been awarded one of the highest grades among all Democrats (and a better grade than at least half of the Republicans) in the annual Cato Fiscal Report Card on the Governors. We were curious about his views because we had heard that he harbored political ambitions beyond the governorship.

Dean charmed nearly everyone in the boardroom. He came across as erudite, policy savvy, and, believe it or not, a friend of free markets--at least by the standards of the Tom Daschle-Dick Gephardt axis of the Democratic party. Even when challenged on issues like environmentalism, where he favored a large centralized mass of intrusive regulations, Dean remained affable.

"You folks at Cato," he told us, "should really like my views because I'm economically conservative and socially laissez-faire." Then he continued: "Believe me, I'm no big-government liberal. I believe in balanced budgets, markets, and deregulation. Look at my record in Vermont." He was scathing in his indictment of the "hyper-enthusiasm for taxes" among Democrats in Washington.

He left--and I will never forget the nearly hypnotic reaction. The charismatic doctor had made believers of several hardened cynics. Nearly everyone agreed that we had finally found a Democrat we could work with. Since then, I've watched Dean's career with more than a little interest and we chat from time to time on the phone.

This all may come as a shock to those following Dean's sudden and unexpected leap-frog over the other Democratic presidential candidates. Running sharply to the left, he's become the darling of the angry liberal intelligentsia. For now at least, he seems to have disavowed his credentials as a free-market enthusiast, a tax cutter, and an enemy of big-government excess. Among the real contenders, he favors the most radical governmental takeover of the health care system, and he supports the biggest tax increase. Also, he was the most vocal opponent of the war in Iraq, verging on pacifism. One thing about Dean, however, remains exactly as I remember it from the day I met him--his unapologetic leftist stands on social issues. As a candidate, he boasts of his support as governor for gay marriages, but as one longtime observer of Vermont politics says, "The one issue he cares most passionately about is pro-choice on abortion, even to the point of holding pro-lifers in total contempt."

The media have celebrated Dean's eclectic economic views. The Washington Post gushed on its front page: "As Governor, Dean Was a Fiscal Conservative." Business Week ap-plauds his pro-business credentials. Hammering George W. Bush almost hourly for his big deficits, Dean himself contends he is still an advocate of "fiscal stability" and a leader who will promote a balanced budget . . . "because I balanced my budget every year in Vermont."

Not so fast. This is, after all, the former governor of the state that gave us Ben & Jerry's Rainforest Crunch and the nation's only self-proclaimed socialist congressman, Bernie Sanders. In Vermont, Euro-style tax-and-spend governmental activism is still in vogue and politicians like Senator Jim Jeffords pass as moderates. This is the second-highest taxing-and-spending state in the country, with collections about $600 per person above the national average. The state's regulatory climate, says John McClaughry of the Ethan Allen Institute, Vermont's sole dispenser of free-market views, "almost seems intentionally designed to chase employers away." Dean has boasted that he was "the most fiscally conservative governor in Vermont in decades," but that's like saying you were the most chaste woman in a Texas whorehouse.

Indeed, Dean has taken many positions that should make life easy for the Republicans' opposition research team. As governor, he supported and successfully enacted a whole menu of dimwitted liberal causes: a state-funded universal health care system (which as president he would take nationwide), government-subsidized child care (even for the rich), a higher minimum wage, a mega-generous prescription drug benefit for seniors with incomes up to four times the poverty level, one of the nation's most liberal mandatory family-leave laws, and taxpayer-funded campaigns. It's no wonder the "Almanac of American Politics" calls Dean "one of the four or five most liberal governors in America."

At one time or another, Dean raised just about every tax he could get his hands on. During his 12 years as governor, he upped the corporate income tax rate by 1.5 percentage points, the sales tax by 1 percentage point, the cigarette tax by 50 cents a pack, and the gas tax by 5 cents a gallon. Sure he balanced the budget every year--by digging deeper into Vermonters' wallets.