Interview with PBS' Gwen Ifill on "Online NewsHour"

June 22, 2005

Gwen Ifill: Now, my talk with the former Vermont governor and presidential candidate who has become a lightning rod for the Republicans and a leader for the Democrats: Howard Dean.

Howard Dean took over the Democratic National Committee four months ago, and he hasn't stopped moving since. Twenty-three states, thousands of handshakes and a fair number of verbal bombshells later, Dean remains insistent and unapologetic about his high-profile efforts to change his party.

It's unclear how much success he's had changing minds. Republicans, who control the White House and Congress, have outraised the Democrats. And some uneasy Democrats have chafed at Dean's more outspoken tendencies.

Embattled House Leader Tom DeLay has been under legal scrutiny, but not charged with any crimes. This is what Dean had to say:

Howard Dean: I think Tom DeLay ought to go back to Houston where he can serve his jail sentence.

Gwen Ifill: Then there were these comments about Republican leaders and Republicans in general.

Howard DeanHOWARD DEAN: A lot of them have never made an honest living in their lives.

Howard Dean (June 6, 2005) : They all behave the same and they all look the same. And they all -- you know, it's pretty much a white, Christian party.

Gwen Ifill: Every time Dean spoke, the Republicans pounced.

Rep. Eric Cantor: For their leader to go on the attack, accusing Republicans of only appealing to one religion, you know, is a sign that they are bankrupt.

Sen. Orrin Hatch: If I didn't know how bright he was, I'd call him a raving idiot.

Gwen Ifill: Some top Democrats have invited Dean to the Capitol to request he "tone down" the rhetoric.

Sen. Joseph Biden: He doesn't speak for me with that kind of rhetoric, and I don't think he speaks for the majority of Democrats.

Gwen Ifill: Today, Dean released a new report about voting irregularities during the 2004 general election in Ohio. On that and a number of other subjects, it was clear during our conversation with him at Democratic Party headquarters earlier today that he is still not backing down.

Re-opening old wounds from last year's elections

Gwen Ifill Gwen Ifill: Your report today found that one-quarter of Ohio voters, more than half of African-Americans, said there were irregularities in their voting process in last year's election. What have you discovered about that and what do you plan to do about it?

Howard Dean: We did not find widespread fraud. What we did find was widespread voter suppression. That means essentially reducing or tactics aimed at reducing the number of voters. African-Americans were the biggest victims of this, but it also was young voters.

Young voters and African-Americans were disproportionately asked for IDs, which is illegal in Ohio. The waiting lines for African-Americans were three times as long as they were for white voters. So we don't know that this would change the outcome of the election, but we do know there was a concentrated effort or at least that was the outcome to reduce African-American votes and to a lesser extent young votes -- the two groups which voted in the highest percentage for John Kerry.

Gwen Ifill: Do you worry that reopening this discussion about Ohio might reopen wounds from the election?

Howard Dean Howard Dean: Well, I think that's not our intention. Our intention is to say let's go forward. You know, there's something more important than the Republican Party and the Democratic Party and that's American democracy.

You know, I understand the Republicans want to be political and dismiss some problems that they may have caused, but it's time now to put that behind us and do something positive for America, and not put the parties first. It's important to have people believe their votes count.

Gwen Ifill: Since you have been Democratic National Chairman there have been reports involving distractions not only involving you, but involving other Democrats. I want to read to you a quote from a senator who said: Every single one of us has stuck our foot in our mouths at one point in our public careers and we paid for it the next day.

Now, that senator was Sen. Richard Durbin who was defending you. Now Senator Durbin is in the position of having to apologize. There seems to be an endless cycle of apology.

Howard Dean: First of all, I think that this is a Republican -- I mean, the Republicans put out press releases about this kind of stuff. I saw a quote in the Washington Times today, which is a right wing organization that claimed that I said that Republicans were Christians that had never done a day's work in their life. That's totally untrue. I never said that. That was a combination of things taken out of context. This is part of the Republican spin machine. And those are the games they want to play in Washington.

Gwen Ifill: If that's true should Senator Durbin have apologized?

Howard Dean Howard Dean: I'm not going to handicap Senator Durbin. Senator Durbin is one of the most fantastic people in the United States Senate, an honest, decent person. Whether he apologizes or not is up to him; not up to me. It's up to him. But I think he's terrific. And I think he's right at the top of my list of great people.

All I'm going to say about this stuff is the Republicans want to focus on personal attacks. What we want to focus on is making sure Social Security works and isn't wrecked by people who can't balance the budget.

What we want to focus on is a defense policy, which includes watching out for things like Iran and North Korea and not letting them -- putting them on the back burner when they're more of a danger to us than Iraq. These are fundamental national security issues and economic issues, which are not being addressed by the Republicans and it's why they attack people like me and Dick Durbin.

















Messenger for the Democratic Party

Gwen Ifill Gwen Ifill: I understand it's what you want to talk about, but it's also clear that that's not what most of the headlines have been. To what degree --

Howard Dean: We don't control the headlines, Gwen, either.

Gwen Ifill: To what degree does it become an example of your giving them a bat to beat you over the head? If you know that they're watching you, if you know they're going to pounce on every word, why give them something?

Howard Dean: They're going to pounce on every word anyway. They're going to make stuff up and the press is going to write it because it's good columns. That's essentially what they do. I don't say they make up quotes and put them in the paper. What they do is they put stuff together, take it out of context and then make personal attacks.

Well, this is a new day at the DNC. Every time they hit us with a personal attack not only are we going to run right over them; we're going to stick to issues.

Gwen Ifill: Because of the things you said -- not all together but separately about Republicans being a white Christian party --

Howard Dean Howard Dean: There's nothing wrong with saying that. I don't apologize for that. I'm a white Christian. It turns out that Republicans are mostly white Christian. I find nothing wrong. They have spent a lot of time trying to insinuate that I said something bad about white Christians. I am one. And I'm not ashamed to talk about it.

Gwen Ifill: It's clear --

Howard Dean: This is Republican spin and Republican nonsense. I think we ought to talk about Social Security; I think we ought to talk about what we're going to do about gas prices. I think we ought to talk about corruption in government so we don't have the majority leader of the U.S. Congress having been reprimanded -- ethics reprimanded three times investigated by the district attorney.

We just need a new day in Washington where we're going to have honesty, some hard work and some focus on the issues that people care about and not all these personal attacks.

Gwen Ifill: How do you do that? As a DNC chairman, are you the messenger for the party or are you the organizer for the party?

Howard Dean: Well I think I wouldn't call myself the messenger. I think Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi have done a great job in Congress making sure that the president doesn't turn Social Security over to the same people that gave us Enron, for example. But I certainly am part of the message team. And I certainly have a lot to do with trying to organize the party.

Gwen Ifill Gwen Ifill: Let's talk about the message for a moment. You just articulated a few of the things you think Democrats should be focusing on, yet we're at a time where polls show that Americans look at the president and they're not so certain about where we are in Iraq. They're not so certain about his remedy for Social Security. They're not so certain about his remedy for tax reform. So shouldn't that be an opportunity that the Democrats can seize and are they doing that?

Howard Dean: I think we can get our message out. Our message is going to be a message about hope. We're going to stop what the Republicans are doing to this country. We're going to stop the fear. We're going to stop the anger. What we want to do is work together. We want to go back to the time when Republicans and Democrats worked together for the good of the country and didn't put the interest of their party ahead of the country.






Criticizing the president's policies

Gwen Ifill: How about an exit strategy for Iraq? Should Democrats be coming up with their own plan that they should be pressing on the White House?

Howard Dean Howard Dean: You know, that's always a difficult issue. My sense is that there is a feeling that we ought to have some kind of a timetable from the president. The president hasn't been successful. On the other hand, Democrats in general and people in general in the Congress both Republicans and Democrats historically have given a president a wide berth on foreign policy and military policy. We in Congress defer to the president.

I think the president has made a mess of Iraq. As you know I didn't think he should have gone in there in the first place because I thought there would probably be a very messy and difficult situation. I think there's a reluctance in the Congress to criticize the president other than his behavior in getting us in, which I don't think was entirely truthful, but I do think now that the Democrats are going to have to at some point come up with an exit strategy since the president is clearly not interested in the facts on the ground in Iraq which are very, very difficult for both the American troops and the Iraqi people.

Gwen Ifill: The president has called the Democrats essentially 'the party of no', who put up the rhetorical stop sign every time that he proposes something. What is the danger that the party will get tagged as being simply obstructionist?

Howard Dean: I think it would be irresponsible for us to say 'yes' to most of the president's agenda. The president's proposing people who are way outside the mainstream to sit on the bench. People, for example, who supported programs that most Americans wouldn't agree with are now sitting on the court; proposed a crazy scheme for Social Security, which would undermine the budgetary integrity of the United States, not to mention undermining Social Security itself. But these are things we have to say no to, to protect America.

But we're going to have a positive agenda that's going to be centered around a strong national defense, a strong economic system with a balanced budget in Bill Clinton's tradition and not in the tradition of Republicans who have not balanced the budget for 35 years -- around a health care system that's comprehensive and around a strong public education system. That positive agenda I think will lay before the American people at election time and then they'll have a choice. Do you want some people who are seriously interested in policy, or do you want to go back to this kind of culture of corruption that we now have in Washington?










The future of the Democratic Party

Gwen Ifill: Are there persuadable Democrats or Republicans out there to your point of view, and is it being reflected at all in your fund raising?

Howard Dean: We think people are persuadable because they're Americans before they're Republicans or Democrats. And the fundraising is hard to say. We have gotten a lot of small donations, which is terrific and we're way ahead of where we were a couple of years ago in fundraising. But I think it's too early to somehow link fundraising to an increased amount of support.

Gwen Ifill Gwen Ifill: How important is it that you speak to voters who used to be borderline Democrats, for instance, religious voters or black voters, many of whom are conservative and are drawn to arguments against things like gay marriage, how do Democrats speak to them anymore?

Howard Dean: Well, first of all we have to show up. The idea we're going to win by campaigning in 18 states is just not going to happen anymore. We need to be in Mississippi, in Utah, in Texas, and Oklahoma. I've been to all four of those states in the relatively brief time I've been chair.

Secondly, we need to speak about moral values. We really do. The Democratic Party I think has the kind of moral values that most people, particularly the religious community and particularly evangelicals like. I've had numbers of calls from evangelicals and discussions with evangelicals as well as high ranking members of the Catholic Church since I've been DNC chair.

We want to reach out to folks. You know, the Republicans talk about two issues: Abortion and gay rights. I don't think that most Democratic officeholders have been supportive of gay marriage, but I think we are supportive of rights for every single American. We may have some differences of opinion with the religious community on those two issues but the Democrats are much more in sync with the both evangelical Christians and others, Catholics and so forth, on helping the poor, on making sure that we have -- everybody has an opportunity. I am including everybody in the American dream.

Howard DeanThose are the real Christian values. And those are values that appear to be absent from the Republican platform. I jokingly say in my speeches that I have yet to see the biblical injunction that it's easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. I have not seen that in the Republican Party platform.

So I don't think that the Republicans have any right to lecture Democrats about morals because our morals really are pretty biblical when you look at them. They really are about being good stewards of the earth that God gave us, they really are about helping children, helping the disenfranchised, making sure that everybody gets included. Those are pretty good values.

Gwen Ifill: Finally, I have to ask you this: Dick Cheney said he doesn't know who loves you except perhaps your mother. What does your mother think about that?

Howard Dean: She doesn't think much. You know, the first time she ever voted Democratic for president was this past election. She's one of those Republicans who have had it. That's why my mother is a Democrat now even after 75 years, it took her 75 years to change her mind.

Gwen Ifill: Mr. Chairman, thank you for much for talking with us.

Howard Dean: Thank you.

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Originally posted on The Online NewsHour Transcripts site.



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