DURING A LUNCH LAST WEEK with reporters and editors of the New York Times, Howard Dean was asked how he would vote, were he a member of Congress, on the proposal to spend $87 billion to cover troop deployment and reconstruction costs in Iraq. Dean, the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, refused by saying, "I'm not running for Congress; I'm running for president."
By that logic, Dean needn't answer any question on which a member of Congress might vote. But does the candidate really believe his logic? During the Times interview, Dean also urged the repeal of recent tax cuts to pay for the reconstruction on which he wouldn't opine. Obviously, there could be no such repeal unless Congress approved it, and Dean surely wouldn't want to be understood as saying he has no view on whether a member should vote for or against a course of action he unequivocally has endorsed.
Dean has taken an unconvincing pass on the most important foreign policy question before the country. It is especially unconvincing in light of the president's role in legislation.
The appropriation bill on which Dean won't state a position happens to be one that has been advanced by the man whom he would retire to Crawford. Submitting legislation is something a president does. The Constitution empowers a president to "recommend" legislation to Congress. It is too bad the Times didn't ask the candidate this follow-up: "What would you as president have recommended to Congress?" Or a second one: "What would you do as president if both houses of Congress passed the measure and it came to your desk--sign it, sit on it, or veto it"?
Dean has discussed American foreign policy on other occasions. Given what he has said, you would think that in the Times interview he would have taken a position on the merits of the reconstruction bill--in favor of at least some version of it. After all, here is what Dean said in a major speech earlier this year:
"The greatest advance in American foreign policy in the last century was the Marshall Plan. Europe's 1,000-year history of nearly continuous war is instead today dominated by an economic union, which would not have been possible without the investment of billions of American taxpayer dollars. We have been paid back many times over in trade dollars and, more importantly, in American lives which have not been lost to yet another European war. Our long-range foreign policy ought to embrace nation building, not run from it. The most successful countries are those with democracies bolstered by a strong middle class."
Dean could have made the case for investing "billions of American taxpayer dollars" in Iraq, even scoring the Bush administration for only belatedly recognizing the need for a substantial appropriation. He could have pointed out that we would be "paid back many times over" not just economically but in American lives otherwise lost if the reconstruction of Iraq were to fail.
The evident explanation for the candidate's refusal to make a particular application of his foreign policy beliefs is that he sees fiscal policy as the biggest issue facing the country--bigger even than the future of Iraq, the threat of terrorism and the security of the United States. That explanation would account for the fact that Dean, even as he refused to say yea or nay on the Iraq spending bill, did endorse repealing the tax cuts. It appears that he won't endorse the appropriation for Iraq unless Congress and President Bush agree to pay for it by pushing the tax rates back up. Which isn't going to happen.
The future of Iraq is going to be decided not in 2005 but over the next year. Money needs to be appropriated now. Either we will do what it takes to win the peace in Iraq or we will lose Iraq--to radicalism, chaos, and terrorism. The world will be an even more dangerous place, and America less secure. But Dean isn't contemplating those consequences. Get rid of those tax cuts--that's his message.
Terry Eastland is publisher of The Weekly Standard. This column originally appeared in the Dallas Morning News.