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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In 1997 his political career looked to be careening out of control. Dean signed into law a Robin Hood school refinancing scheme called Act 60, which guaranteed that every school would spend at least $5,000 per student. To pay for it, dollars would be extracted from wealthy school districts and channeled to the poorer ones. Local property tax assessments, which paid for community schools, were replaced with one uniform statewide property tax. But Vermont's highbrow liberals weren't so interested in redistribution schemes in which they were the ones to be gouged and their own children's schools would lose out. The class warfare plan spontaneously combusted into a thunderous tax revolt across the state. Three donor towns defiantly refused to send their taxes to Montpelier. Vermonter and bestselling author John Irving, a self-described liberal Democrat, famously lambasted the plan as an exercise in "Marxism." In November, voters took their rage out on Dean, who narrowly escaped a career-ending loss by only a few hundred votes.

But he weathered the storm. Dean is nothing if not a survivor--as well as an iconoclast. Even as he pursued wild-eyed social experiments, Dean carefully nurtured a reputation as a "business-friendly" governor. On numerous occasions he pragmatically swept aside onerous environmental regulations and last-use restrictions (this is the greenest state of all) to make room for business expansion and jobs, jobs, jobs. He supported electricity deregulation to take monopolistic pricing power away from big utilities. He even launched one of the nation's most progressive voucher programs for high school students.

The word Vermonters use most often to describe Dean is "frugal." Coming into office amidst the early 1990s recession, he cut formerly sacrosanct welfare spending to keep the state out of debt. The Cato analysis shows that during Dean's first four years in office, Vermont's budget grew much more slowly than other states'. He cut income tax rates across the board (much as President Bush did). Although he raised overall business taxes, he approved millions of dollars' worth of incentives to lure smoke stacks back into the Green Mountain State. It was during these early years that the head of the state's powerful Progressive party called him "a very right-wing Democrat." And during a time when President Bush has been piling up mountains of debt in Washington and 47 governors face record budget deficits of their own, Dean admirably left Vermont with a $10.4 million surplus when he left office this past January--which would certainly be one of his trump cards against Bush. If Dean were ever elected president, I'm convinced he would be monomaniacal about balancing the budget--though certainly not in ways that would please conservatives.

Part of Dean's star appeal has been the refreshing genuineness of his campaign rhetoric, even when his ideas are cockeyed. By pledging to repeal the entire Bush tax cut--a move that would raise the average tax burden on middle income families with three kids by about $2,500 a year, Dean is attempting to prove that voters will swallow higher taxes to get more government largesse. In a recent debate, he confidently asserted that when working class voters saw his universal government-run health care plan, they would gladly pay for it. "If we're going to have a system of universal health care in America, we will have to pay more taxes," he said.

Of course, these are the kinds of unavoidable tough fiscal choices that voters should be asked to make, but that most politicians refuse to acknowledge. God save the country if voters actually buy into Dean's health care socialism, but at least he is honest about the sacrifices required. This is not a man who believes in the mythical free lunch.

Ever since that first meeting with Howard Dean some five years ago, I've been trying to think of what politician he most resembles. The former governor of a small state, he is charismatic, good looking, wonkish, craving of the spotlight, and capable of telling a room full of people precisely what they want to hear. The obvious answer recently hit me: Dean is Bill Clinton, but without the skirt-chasing.

Republicans are said to be salivating over the prospect of a Bush-Dean match-up. They shouldn't get carried away. Howard Dean, warns John McClaughry, has been "underestimated throughout his political career. He has an uncanny knack for finding where the political capital is stored and walking off with it." The trick for Dean is to ensure that the ultra-liberal positions he has taken in the primaries, which contradict his sometimes centrist record, don't cripple his ability to reach out to Middle American voters in a general election--should he make it that far. If he does, and then finds a way to zig-zag back toward the center, Howard Dean could be George W. Bush's worst nightmare.

Stephen Moore is president of the Club for Growth and a senior fellow at the Cato Institute.