MSNBC's Meet The Press

December 12, 2004

MR. TIM RUSSERT:  ...One year ago he was the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination.  Will he run for president again in 2008 or seek to become the chairman of the Democratic national party?  We'll ask him.  Our guest:  the former governor of Vermont, Howard Dean.

...joining us now for his first television interview since the November election is Howard Dean.

Welcome back.

DR. HOWARD DEAN:  Thanks, Tim, for having me on.

MR. RUSSERT:  Topical story:  Bernard Kerik...

DR. DEAN:  Yes.

MR. RUSSERT:  ...President Bush's nominee to be secretary of the Homeland Security, has withdrawn.  What's your reaction?

DR. DEAN:  Well, you know, I think he should have known better.  I mean, everybody was put on notice with Zoe Baird 10 years ago that if you have domestic help, it can't be an illegal immigrant and you can't pay her under the table.  And I think for this still to be going on for people who think they're going to be in public service is not so great.

MR. RUSSERT:  Here we sit...

DR. DEAN:  I think it was good--on the plus side, it's a good thing he pulled the plug very quickly and it's over and done with.

MR. RUSSERT:  We're about five weeks into the November election.  Do you think you could have beaten George Bush?

DR. DEAN:  You know, that's "woulda, coulda, shoulda."  I wasn't the nominee. I know one thing:  I couldn't have beaten John Kerry to be the nominee so, you know, to say who could have done what afterwards is--as you know what I said when I left the presidential race:  "It's all what we'd call in medicine a `retrospectoscope.'"  It's very easy to say just how things should have gone once they've already gone that way.

MR. RUSSERT:  Could the Democrats have gone after George Bush's foreign policy, national security record more effectively?

DR. DEAN:  Well, I think the answer is yes, because we didn't win, so I believe that you go after somebody's strengths, that the president ran as a war president and he ran as a national security president.  The truth is, his record on national security is weak, not strong, but we're not spending the money we need to to get the nuclear weapons leftovers out of Russia; that's a budget item the president has not spent the money on.  We're not inspecting the cargo containers.  I think it would have been a great strategy to do that.

But I think John ran a pretty good campaign.  In fact, from a grassroots perspective, we ran the best campaign that we ever have; it just wasn't good enough.  It's one of the reasons I'm interested in the DNC chairmanship.

MR. RUSSERT:  What should George Bush do right now about Iraq?

DR. DEAN:  Well, my view for a long time has been that this is a terrible mess, and the best we can do is try to get out of there with some reasonable semblance of stability in Iraq.  And we can't do that immediately.  I actually support the president on the idea of having these elections on January 30th. I don't think there's any good time to have an election.  These guys in the White House have really messed up by not anticipating any kind of an insurgency whatsoever.  We're going to live with that insurgency as long as we're there.  The only chance we can get out in a reasonable way without leaving a much worse national security situation than we found one in is to have these elections, and to try to allow the Iraqis to run their country.

MR. RUSSERT:  You said you're thinking about running for chairman of the Democratic national party.  If you did, in fact, run for chairman of the party and win, could you run for president in '08 as well?

DR. DEAN:  No, absolutely not.  You cannot--the reason I'm interested in running for the DNC chairmanship is because I think we need some fundamental things done differently.  I think we are left by Terry McAuliffe with a big surplus, and he's done a great job in terms of leaving this party in good financial condition.  Something I've never seen in my lifetime in politics is the DNC with a surplus after a presidential election.  So the next chairman doesn't have to dig out from debt.

What we do have to do is look at what the Republicans do well and, frankly, what we did well at Democracy for America.  We elected candidates in places like Alabama and Utah and Idaho and Georgia.  Democrats can win in those places.  First, I think we have to have a 50-state strategy, and secondly, I really believe we have to stand up for being Democrats.  We have a message to sell.  I frankly think it's a better message than the Republicans; we've just got to figure out how to get it out there.  Grassroots, empowering people elsewhere in the country, instead of trying to run things from the top down, I think, is the way to do it.  It was successful for us.  I think it can be successful for the Democratic National Committee.

MR. RUSSERT:  You just spent the weekend in Florida meeting with the state Democratic Party chairs.  Are you close to running?  Were they encouraging to you?

DR. DEAN:  Well, you know, I am going to run if I think that I can win, if I think that they really want me.  This is an institution and the people in the institution know that they have to change, but the pain of change is always greater.  Until the pain of changing is less than the pain of staying the same, they aren't going to change.  And I had a lot of debates with myself about whether to try to change things from the outside or change things from the inside knowing it was going to be a significant institutional resistance if I try to change things from the inside, but I concluded it's faster to change the party from the inside.

We have got to get back in power in this country.  We can't afford these two trill-- imagine the president talking about spending $2 trillion of additional deficit charged to our children's credit card to take senior benefits away. These people who are running this country are running it in a short-term way, racking up enormous deficits, enormous future national security problems for us.  We can't afford the Republicans.  We've got to get rid of them as fast as fast as possible because they can't run the country properly.  And so I concluded that trying to move the party in a direction where we can start winning elections at the local level first, because that's where it all starts, and then at the national level as fast as we can is the right thing to do.

MR. RUSSERT:  Social Security faces a crisis.  Should Democrats work with the president in trying to set up some private accounts as a way of cutting the cost of Social Security long term?

DR. DEAN:  Well, I think that's up to the Democrats and the legislature, but I'll say a couple of things about that.  I personally don't think privatization of Social Security is a good idea because you're going to end up taking away benefits from people.  Social Security will be there for a 21-year-old today but they will not be there if you allow the president to destroy the system.  The biggest problem I have with what the president wants to do is to add $2 trillion to the deficit.  This is unbelievable.  Four years ago, Bill Clinton was president of the United States.  We had a big surplus. This is the borrow and spend, borrow and spent administration.  They are fiscally irresponsible.  You can't trust Republicans with your money anymore. They just take it and spend it.  We cannot afford a $2 trillion borrowing fix to whatever the president wants to do to Social Security.

MR. RUSSERT:  Let me talk about your potential run for state chair (sic).  For Senator Bob Kerrey had this to say.  "[Dean's] got tremendous skills, and if he became [DNC] chairman, he'd do a good job.  ...But if he runs, he's going to have some `splaining' to do, as Ricky Ricardo used to say.  ...  Which Howard Dean are we talking about?  ...If we're talking about the Howard Dean who was governor of Vermont, I would say fine.  But if it's a presidential candidate Dean, I would say probably no."

DR. DEAN:  Well, you know, everybody's going to have their own opinion about whether I should run for the DNC chairmanship or not, but let me just say a little bit about what I think I could bring to the job.  First of all, I think it's accepted that our campaign brought hundreds of thousands of new people, not all of them were Democrats, into the fold especially young people to vote for Democrats which--and they voted for John Kerry by a significant margin.

Second of all, we raised more money than any other candidate because we taught people how to run grassroots.  Since that time, we've had an organization, Democracy for America, which has raised even more grassroots money and pumped into the local races and we've had some successes in so-called red states.

I understand what it is to empower people who aren't in Washington.  I think we can't win anymore unless the message is made in the states and then filters up to Washington rather than made at the DNC and then we tell the state parties what to do because the message--there'll be an overall Democratic message, but the message needs to come from places like Alabama, not just Minnesota, if we're going to win and have a chance in Alabama.  So I think I have a lot to offer the DNC and we'll see if they agree with me or not.

MR. RUSSERT:  The New Republic has written an editorial opposed to your candidacy.  It says, "This is one of those key moments when Democrats must decide what course to take in the wake of 2004 election.  And making Dean their spokesman is exactly the wrong way to go.  ... During the campaign, Dean embraced a particular, and utterly wrong, theory of how Democrats ought to win elections.  Rather than focus on persuading centrists, he argued, Democrats should rile up their own base, which required the nomination of Dean rather than a more cautious new Democrat.  `I concluded that the only way we can win is to really get our base excited:  African Americans, Latinos, trade unionists, women and new young people.'  ... This, too, proved false.  ... The liberal base is simply not large enough to win national elections."

DR. DEAN:  First of all, I don't think we're talking about a liberal base.  I think we're talking about a populist base, a base that wants economic justice, a base that wants fairness, a base that knows it's been left behind by a president who is much more interested in corporate welfare than he is of the welfare of the American public at large.

Second of all, our campaign didn't fail because I was wrong about the strategy.  Karl Rove has used the strategy that the New Republic talked about incredibly successful.  You didn't see the president becoming a centrist all of a sudden.  The president is the most conservative really far-right president we've seen in my lifetime and he uses that very effectively to get his base to the polls.

As I said earlier, we ran the best grassroots campaign that I've seen in my lifetime.  They ran a better one.  Why?  Because we sent 14,000 people into Ohio from elsewhere.  They had 14,000 from Ohio talking to their neighbors and that's how you win in rural states and in rural America.  If we don't do those things, we aren't going to win.  We have to learn to do those things.

MR. RUSSERT:  Some mainstream Democrats, Governor, have said when Howard Dean ran, he said he represented the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party, and that the Democratic Leadership Council, which was headed by Bill Clinton, was the "Republican wing of the Democratic Party."  Is a liberal from Vermont the answer to the Democratic Party's problems when there are so many red states throughout the country that seem to be resistant to liberals from the Northeast?

DR. DEAN:  Well, first of all, I'm not running for president, I'm running for DNC chair.  So it's the candidates that make the difference in terms of the political message, not the DNC chair.  But secondly, here's my record in Vermont, balance the budget, everybody under 18 has health insurance, enormous investment in early childhood so that we've reduced our child abuse rate and eight consecutive endorsements from the National Rifle Association. Now, I don't know if that makes me a liberal or centrist or a right-wing conservative, but it's not exactly what you would call the classic profile of a Northeasterner.  I come from a very rural state, and I get rural politics, and I get agricultural politics, and I think that's important.

MR. RUSSERT: put out a memo to its supporters.  It says in part: "In the last year, grassroot contributors like us gave more than $300 million to the Kerry campaign and the DNC and proved that the [Democratic] Party doesn't need corporate cash to be competitive.  Now it's our Party:  we bought it, we own it, and we're going to take it back."  They go on to say that, Terry McAuliffe "cozied up" to the same corporate donors that fund Republicans. (See a commentary on this)

DR. DEAN:  Well, first of all, that's not too fair because there weren't any corporate donors after McCain-Feingold.  The most you could take was the $25,000 donation, which I don't think goes far enough.  I think we need election reform, and we need further campaign finance reform.  But under the rules, I think that a lot of that was cut out and that Terry wasn't doing that.

Secondly, in Terry McAuliffe's defense, we are--really are in the best shape that we have ever been in going into an off-presidential year.  Now, I understand--look, Move On has a lot of people who are in the same kind of political area as a lot of our folks at Democracy for America, and Move On was very, very helpful during the election, and grassroots politics is where it is.  But to say that any faction of the Democratic Party owns it and bought it and so forth, I think, is a little over the top, and I was a little surprised at that memo.

MR. RUSSERT:  Ron Fournier from the Associated Press wrote about John Kerry, and he said this:  "[They want to know], Democrat leaders, why Kerry ended his campaign with more than $15 million in the bank.  ...  `Democrats are questioning why he sat on so much money that could have helped him defeat George Bush or helped down-ballot races, many of which could have gone our way with a few more million dollars,' said Donna Brazile, a member of the DNC and a campaign manager for Al Gore."

Are you concerned when you read that John Kerry still has $15 million?

DR. DEAN:  Not as concerned as the other folks are because he couldn't have spent that on his presidential race.  That was pre-primary money that came in after the deadline.  He couldn't spend it.  He could have given it to down-ballot races, and I think that's a legitimate question--and I don't know the answer to that question--but he could not have spent that on the presidential race.

MR. RUSSERT:  What should he do with the money?

DR. DEAN:  Well, that's his business not mine.  I don't think I'll be in the business of giving him advice on MEET THE PRESS.

MR. RUSSERT:  But as chairman of the Democratic National Committee, would you urge him to give it to the DNC or to other candidates--Democratic candidates throughout the country?

DR. DEAN:  If he were so inclined, I would prefer it be put into grassroots organizing.

MR. RUSSERT:  Harry Reid, the new leader of the Democrats, was on the MEET THE PRESS last week, and he said he would be open to Antonin Scalia being appointed chief justice of the Supreme Court.  There may be some ethical problems, he said.  If he could get by those, he was very much impressed by the brilliance of his mind.

DR. DEAN:  Well, first of all, I like Harry Reid a lot.  He's a straight shooter, and I think he's going to be a good leader.  I disagree with him on this one.  I think Antonin Scalia ought not to be on the Supreme Court let alone chief justice because I think he lacks judicial temperament.


DR. DEAN:  Because when you--and I have appointed a great many judges as my career as governor--the second thing after a work ethic that you look for when you're appointing a judge or a justice is judicial temperament.  That means--in our judicial system, it's very important for the loser and/or the winner in any case to be--to feel like they've been treated fairly and respectfully by the court system.  That's what is the glue that binds us together as a society.  When you are sarcastic and mean-spirited, as the justice often is from the bench, it leaves the losing--the loser in that case feeling as if they were not respected by the judicial system, and that's why you don't put people with bad temperament on the--on any court, and I certainly don't think they should be on the Supreme Court of the United States.

MR. RUSSERT:  When specifically was he mean-spirited or sarcastic?

DR. DEAN:  You've seen many, many times.  I don't have a specific time, but you could go read almost any oral argument in the last year and find sarcastic, mean-spirited remarks from the justice in those arguments.

MR. RUSSERT:  Let me turn to the issue of abortion.  The Newsweek reports that John Kerry went to a Democratic meeting to thank his supporters, and they asked him what he had learned from the past campaign.  And he said, "We have to find a different way to deal with the issue of abortion in terms of explaining the Democratic position, and we have to find a way to bring in right-to-life Democrats back into the Democratic Party."  Could you conceive of a way the Democratic Party could say to mainstream ethnic voters, "We're a different Democratic Party.  We may look at perhaps the whole idea of parental notification in terms of abortion.  We may look at banning it in the third trimester."  Is there a way the Democrats could change their vocabulary on abortion?

DR. DEAN:  We can change our vocabulary, but I don't think we ought to change our principles.  The way I think about this is--and it gets into the gay marriage stuff, too.  We're not the party of gay marriage.  We're the party of equal rights for all Americans.  You know, I signed the first civil unions bill in America, and four years later the most conservative president the United States has seen in my lifetime is now embracing what I signed.  We've come a long way.  We're not the party of abortion.  We're the party of allowing people to make up their own minds about medical treatment.  It's just a different way of phrasing it.  We have to start framing these issues, not letting them frame the issues.

I have long believed that we ought to make a home for pro-life Democrats.  The Democrats that have stuck with us, who are pro-life, through their long period of conviction, are people who are the kind of pro-life people that we ought to have deep respect for.  Not only are they pro-life, which, I think, is a moral judgment--I happen to be strongly pro-choice, as a physician--but they are pro-life more moral reasons.  They also, if they're in the Democratic Party, are real pro-life.  That is, they're pro-life not just for unborn children. They're pro-life for investing in children's programs.  They're pro-life for helping small children and young families.  They're pro-life in making sure adequate medical care happens to children.  That's what you so often lack on the Republican side.  They beat the drums about being pro-life but they forget about life after birth.  And so I do embrace pro-life Democrats.  I think we want them in our party.  We can have a respectful dialogue, and we have to stop demagoguing this issue. (See a commentary on this)

MR. RUSSERT:  And if you became chairman of the party, you would actively reach out to pro-life Democrats?

DR. DEAN:  In my campaign, supposedly this liberal campaign, we had a number of pro-life people.  Our campaign really is a reform campaign.  Now, there were a lot of progressive people, and I believe in progressive issues, but what we're trying to do is reform America.  We're trying to have health-care reform, we're trying to have election reform, campaign finance reform.  We're certainly trying to reform the borrow-and-spend habits of this administration, which is the most spendthrift administration in my lifetime in America.  This supposedly conservative administration can't hold on to a dollar, let alone a taxpayer dollar.  So we want real reform and I want the Democratic Party to stand for reform.

MR. RUSSERT:  It sounds like you'd really like to be chairman of the party.

DR. DEAN:  I would like to be chairman of the party, but you know, it's an odd dance.  It's not like going out into the primaries and bringing people in. There's 447 people that get to vote on this, and, you know, I'm not much of an insider, and this is a pretty insider game.

MR. RUSSERT:  When do you have to make a final decision?

DR. DEAN:  Not for a while.  There's a lot of people who are sort of in and out and moving around, and there's a lot of talking behind the scenes, and I'm very much hoping--I'm hoping actually, oddly as it sounds for me, to be a somewhat of a consensus person.  I'm hoping that we'll be able to bring all the factions together.  It's going to take some time, because I really fried the party while I was out there running for president, I think with some good reason.  But I am a Democrat.  I think the Democratic Party is a far better vehicle for reforming America than some other vehicle that you'd have to start from scratch or some interest group.  And in the long run, if we can make the Democratic Party the party of real reform, then I think we'd really gain something for the country.

MR. RUSSERT:  You said if you win chairman of the Democratic Party, you can't run for president in '08.  If you do not become chairman of the Democrat Party, might you consider running for president?

DR. DEAN:  I'll think about it, because I never turn down any, you know, proposal without thinking about it carefully.  So certainly I suppose I'd be in the mix for a while until I figured out what I was going to do.  But my first choice is to be the DNC chair if I can be.

MR. RUSSERT:  Before you go, I turned on the radio recently and listened to an ad for Yahoo! and I want to play that for you and our viewers and get your reaction.

[Audiotape of radio ad]:

DR. DEAN:  Yahoo locals helped me find all sorts of things, like bookstores (growls loudly) in Iowa!, and convention centers (growls loudly) in Nebraska! and some very interesting diners (growls loudly) in Illinois!

[End audiotape]

MR. RUSSERT:  What's that about?

DR. DEAN:  Oh, it's having fun, you know.  Everybody teases me about the scream speech, and it was a little over the top.  So was the cable coverage of it.  ABC News actually did a great story 10 days later, saying it really wasn't what it was.  But I think if you can't have fun with yourself and laugh at yourself, then you probably shouldn't be in the business.

MR. RUSSERT:  Are you going to work with Yahoo! in the future?

DR. DEAN:  No.  I just did that for one...

MR. RUSSERT:  One time only.

DR. DEAN:  It's a one-time shot.

MR. RUSSERT:  Well, Governor Dean, we'll be following your potential election as chairman of the DNC chair, and we hope you come back and share your views.

DR. DEAN:  Tim, thanks a lot.

. . .

--- End ---

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