An Associated Press
postmortem on Howard Dean’s presidential campaign compared his candidacy
to a supernova. He came from way out in back of the pack, alongside
such long shots as Dennis Kucinich and Al Sharpton, and through prodigious
fundraising and an Internet-engineered summer boom was catapulted all the
way to front-runner status. By Christmas, he had managed to snag Al
Gore’s endorsement. But shortly before the first votes were cast in
Iowa, he imploded in spectacular fashion.
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Dean nevertheless inspired a committed core of true believers who were convinced
their man was going to change the direction of the Democratic Party and the
nation. Some of them were aging baby boomers like the candidate himself,
seeking to reclaim the idealism of their past; others were young students
who had never been involved in politics or cast a ballot before. What
they shared was a conviction that they were part of a movement that was larger
than themselves and in the process of doing something truly revolutionary.
It is understandable that Dean’s decision to drop out of the race, after
failing to win a single contest where delegates were at stake – the D.C.
primary was purely symbolic and did not include most of the major candidates
in any event – would be profoundly disappointing to these dyed-in-the-wool
Deaniacs. Past landslide defeats by Barry Goldwater and George McGovern
were similarly disillusioning to their equally committed supporters.
But it may be the case that Dean’s withdrawal from active campaigning is
saving his followers from an even greater letdown, as their contradictory
expectations of him made disappointment almost inevitable.
Dean appealed to two distinctly different groups of voters. One group
believed the former Vermont governor was the liberal’s liberal, a staunch
progressive who would reverse years of DLC-inspired centrist drift during
which the Clintonized Democrats lost their way. He was going to stand
up to the left’s enemies in the Bush administration, the Christian right,
big business in general and the pharmaceuticals industry in particular to
accomplish a host of liberal objectives: End the war in Iraq, protect the
rights of gays and women seeking abortions, reverse the corporate control
of our politics and economy and secure universal health care. Dean
won standing ovations and a big bounce in the polls by appealing to the angriest,
most antiwar and Bush-hating elements of his party.
But another group signed on as Deaniacs because they liked what they saw
when Dean was governor of Vermont: Balanced budgets in a relatively small-government
state. These voters perceived Dean as a moderate, fiscally responsible
– even fiscally conservative – Democrat who would erase the red ink amassed
by the Bush administration, support free trade, preserve civil liberties,
be flexible on gun rights and dismantle corporate welfare. They ranged
from the kind of educated, middle-class suburban Democrats who backed Paul
Tsongas in 1992 as he tried to educate his party on the value of business
and budgetary discipline to Libertarians for Dean. Even a small number of disenchanted conservatives were intrigued by the prospect of voting for Dean.
It amounted to a fascinating political coalition until you paused to consider:
There was no way it would have been possible for Dean to have pleased both
of these groups. Dean the libertarian was in contradiction with Dean
the savior of the liberal welfare state. Dean the protectionist could
not be reconciled with Dean the free trader, even if a belief in both was
rooted in his history of policy pronouncements.
Liberal Dean supporters had to hope that his entire record as governor of
Vermont was irrelevant to how he would govern as president. In Montpelier,
Dean often tried to curry favor with business rather than fight it.
He was constantly clashing with the Progressive Coalition that stood behind
far-left Congressman Bernie Sanders rather than realizing their policy goals.
He had an A rating from that bete noire of the liberal establishment, the National Rifle Association.
Dean’s nonliberal backers had to base their faith on even more remote possibilities.
For example, they needed to hope that the way he was campaigning for president
– and the policies he was including in his platform – would prove irrelevant
to the way he behaved in office, or at least less relevant than his more
milk-and-water governorship. They had to overlook his promise to raise
taxes across the board, rescind deregulation and grow all manner of government
programs and instead focus on his promise to balance the budget.
Libertarians for Dean and their ilk maintained they were being pragmatic.
Divided government limits what both parties can do and therefore keeps the
worse tendencies of both – as well as those of the government they run –
in check. During the years where Bill Clinton was president but the
Republicans controlled Congress, the worst proposals on both sides were frustrated
while discretionary spending was held to a much lower rate of increase than
we have experienced under a simultaneously Republican White House and Congress.
Moreover, many libertarians reminded us that war is the health of the state.
An open-ended Iraq war, they argued, would be more detrimental to liberty
in the long term than any temporary uptick in marginal tax rates.
Yet despite Dean’s longstanding opposition to the Iraq war, which some libertarians
actually favored, there is no evidence that he is a consistent noninterventionist.
He supported sending U.S. troops to Liberia without any national interest
at stake. Moreover, given that he opposes an immediate withdrawal from
Iraq, even his position on the current conflict is more nuanced than often
While there is some merit to their point about divided government, this argument
misses some subtleties. It is true, for example, that government was
kept at least partially in check when congressional Republicans had to share
Pennsylvania Avenue with Clinton. But there are several factors that
ought to be considered other than divided government.
First, the Newt Gingrich-led Republicans were a far more antistatist, principled
and energized group than the spendthrift congressional Republicans of today.
Republicans have partisan motives to block a President Dean’s spending initiatives,
but if a Dean administration proposed something truly popular, what guarantee
do we have that the GOP would take a braver stand than they did on prescription
Second, many Republicans were ready to make peace with Clinton’s big-government
proposals a decade ago. While we remember the last administration’s
health-care reform package as a political flop today, initially the Republican
leadership acceded to its essentials. Then Senate Republican Leader
Bob Dole assigned liberal Senator John Chaffee (R-R.I.) to come up with the
official GOP alternative and endorsed his resulting plan, which was substantively
similar to Clinton’s but less expensive and minus the employer mandates.
The only thing that kept a compromise along these big-government lines from
going anywhere was the 1996 race for the GOP presidential nomination.
Phil Gramm was a candidate and he took a strong stand against both Hillarycare
and Hillarycare Lite. Dole was forced to stiffen his resolve on the
health-care issue to protect his right flank from Gramm.
Third, this divided-government analysis ignores key facts about Clinton.
Unlike Dean, who ran to appeal to the hard left, Clinton ran for president
as a moderating influence on the Democratic Party. Moreover, most of
his actual moderation – and willingness to compromise with Republicans –
stemmed from the 1994 midterm elections raising questions about his own reelection
prospects. Expecting lightning to strike twice under two Democratic
administrations might have been overly optimistic.
Fourth, while divided government does frustrate some of each party’s government-expanding
initiatives, it prevents many government-limiting proposals from seeing the
light of day, also. Under Clinton, many significant tax cuts the GOP
otherwise would have passed did not come to fruition. And while complete
Republican control of the presidency and Congress hasn’t yet produced significant
free-market reforms of Medicare or Social Security, such reforms become even
less likely with Democrats controlling either branch.
Finally, divided-government claims assume a Democratic nominee would have
no coattails. Although both houses do look safely Republican, there
are a number of marginal seats. It is possible, though admittedly not
likely, that electing a Democratic president could cause the Democrats to
win a house of Congress. In short, backing a liberal Democrat who succeeds
in implementing the policies you agree with and simultaneously fails to implement
the ones you disagree with is a risky strategy.
Impressive though it was for Dean to have mobilized such a disparate corps
of dedicated volunteers and supporters, there was no way a President Dean
– or even a Democratic nominee Dean – could have kept them all happy.
He would have had to position himself in ways more to the liking of one group
than the other to get elected and in actual governance would have had to
work some of the contradictions out.
John McCain used to quip that he welcomed the support of everyone, including
“libertarians and vegetarians.” Dean’s mix of statists and antistatists
wouldn’t have panned out and it is probably better for his champions in both
camps to be facing the disappointment now.
W. James Antle III is a primary columnist for Intellectual Conservative.com. He works as an assistant editor of The American Conservative magazine and is also a senior editor of EnterStageRight.com.
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