Interview with Tavis Smiley

June 14, 2007

Tavis Smiley, Host: Always pleased to welcome Dr. Howard Dean to this program. The former Vermont governor and presidential hopeful is, of course, chair of the Democratic National Committee. In that capacity, he hopes to lead Democrats to victory in 2008 with what is unquestionably the most diverse group of candidates ever fielded by a national party.

Two weeks from tonight, I am honored to be hosting all eight of Governor Dean's presidential candidates for our first all-American presidential forum, right here in prime time on PBS. But first, Dr. Dean, as always, good to see you.

Howard Dean, DNC Chair: Hey, thanks for having me on.

Tavis: Thank you for all your help in getting all these candidates to show up for our forum.

Dean: Well, it's going to be a great debate. A great debate.

Tavis: I'm looking forward to it, because very quickly on that matter, the debates that have happened so far, there are two things that have struck me - at least two that are very fascinating, which I want to get your take on. One, there's so many issues that resonate with, that matter to people of color in this multicultural, multiracial, multiethnic America that have not come up. Your thoughts about that, number one.

Then number two, it occurred to me on the last debate I was watching that there was - imagine this in America - there was more diversity on stage running for president than there were from the people asking the questions on the network that aired it.

Dean: (smiles, intrigued) That's very interesting.

Tavis: Five White guys who were anchoring the coverage - with all due respect to White guys; I'm sorry.

Dean: (Laughs) No offense taken.

Tavis: Yeah, no offense - yeah. Five White guys anchoring the coverage, but there was more diversity on stage running for president than there was on the other side. (Unintelligible) change that a little bit.

Dean: Well, I'll tell you something interesting. I talk to a lot of young people, 'cause young people are really finding their way towards the Democratic Party, and that's the key to the future. And what I say is, I was a freshman in college when Martin Luther King was killed, and if Martin Luther King were here - almost 40 years ago; 39 years ago.

If Martin Luther King were here today, even he would be amazed that out of the six major candidates for president, there's a woman, an African American, and a Hispanic. That is an extraordinary tape. It's good when you can look back and see how far we've come. We want people to be impatient, we want people to keep working hard to make more progress, but it is good to look back once in a while and see how far we've come.

Tavis: We can celebrate that, as we are now. I guess the question is whether or not America is ready for that, beyond the celebration of it.

Dean: Well, look at the election of Deval Patrick in Massachusetts. People say, "Well, it was Massachusetts." Well, don't forget Louise Day Hicks stood in the schoolhouse door, too, figuratively, when they were integrating the schools in Boston. So yeah, there's been real progress. Does there need to be an awful lot more? Absolutely there does. But there's been real progress.

Tavis: What do you make - this is not your - I don't cast aspersion on you, you had no control over this - but what do you make of the lack of subject matter relative to people of color that have not - there are so many issues that have not been surfaced yet.

Dean: To be honest about it - and again, no offense meant to White guys - but if you have all one kind of person asking the questions, you're not likely to get questions that are of interest to anybody else. And that's one of the reasons we changed the primary schedule around. We thought it was bad for our candidates just to campaign in states that were 95 percent White, because everybody elects the president, and our candidates 'cause they're going to have to spend some time in front of Hispanics and Asian-Americans, African Americans, Native Americans, and so forth.

Those are all folks that we can't win without, so we changed the primary system to diversify the electorate, both geographically and ethnically. You've got to do that, and you've got to diversify the people who ask the questions or you're not going to get these things coming up, although I suspect they'll come up two weeks from tonight.

Tavis: You can bet on that, baby. The flipside of what you just argued, though, about the courageous move the Democrats made to open up their calendar, which put heat, as you know, on the Republicans as well to move beyond Iowa and New Hampshire in the early goings - I think it was a very smart move and a shrewd move, and I thank you for doing that.

That said, the flipside is this thing is so front-loaded now on February the fifth that we're going to know, like, that night -

Dean: I think that may not be so. It may be so, but last time, remember, we knew after the first night, John Kerry won Iowa and he basically ran the table. I think each of us won one primary after that. So this is - if you do get somebody after February fifth, at least they will have been through four areas, one in each part of the country, and with every single kind of person in America having some serious say.

The other thing is, I actually think one thing that could happen is that if these - this is the strongest field we've seen in a long time. There are a lot of people in this field who are really well qualified to be president of the United States. It's not impossible they'd split those four states, and if they do, whoever - I predict right now whoever figures out that California is a grassroots state, it's not a media state, is going to win the presidential nomination.

Because they can organize California door-to-door, that's how you're going to win the California primary. And whoever wins the California primary is going to have a big advantage.

Tavis: I'm so wrong, so wrong for asking this question of the chairman, but I'm going to do it anyway. So what happens - how does this thing get just totally mucked up if Al Gore gets in?

Dean: (Laughs) Well, there are some things I can't speculate about it. (Laughter) I am neutral, after all. I intend to remain so. So I'm not going to speculate on that. If he gets in, he gets in; then we've got seven people who are - or whatever the number is.

Tavis: Is there a down side - seriously, is there a down side to having such a good, diverse field of candidates, as opposed to getting around one person like the Republicans did with Bush did eight years ago?

Dean: No, there's an enormous up side. I don't think the candidates are going to tear each other apart because first of all, they've got a lot of qualified people there. If two of them go at each other, they'll drive up their own negatives and somebody else will win. So they know that. Secondly, Democrats want to win. One of the things I've heard from Democrats all over the country is, look, I like so-and-so, but if they don't win, all these folks are great.

They really like this field, unlike what's going on on the Republican side, where they're really struggling 'cause the field is not in synch with the core issues of the right wing of the party. So I think it's positive for us to have a strong field, because it's going to bring a lot of people into this party who haven't been active in politics for a long time.

Tavis: When you were last here, we were talking about your 50-state strategy, and a lot of folk were - not a lot, but some people were demonizing that Dean notion of a 50-state strategy. How is that coming along?

Dean: It's great. It's been - I just got back from New Mexico, and it's just been terrific. They took a tour of the part of the state that's the most Republican - all kinds of press. People hadn't seen a Republican state chair in 20 years there (sic). That's how you win elections. You don't win elections by just going to the same people that you always go to. You've got to expand the field and go to people you don't normally talk to, and at worst will happen, you won't get any additional votes but at least you'll get the respect of the people who didn't vote for you.

That was one of Bush's many, many major, major errors. He decided he wanted to be president of half the country, not all the country by simply dismissing people who didn't agree with him. And you can't do that if you're going to be a strong leader.

Tavis: I was talking to your guy from the campaign - is it Joe Trippi who did your (unintelligible) -

Dean: He did, he was the manager, right.

Tavis: I was talking to Joe the other day on the radio show, and we were having a conversation in part included some conversation retrospectively about how you all - the Dean campaign, that is - opened up fundraising on the Internet like nobody ever had. Now everybody's taking what you guys did four years ago and used the Internet to raise a bunch of money.

I raise that because Barack, as you well know - Senator Obama - overwhelmingly, most of his money $100 or less from everyday people, and a whole lot of it via the Internet. The money in this campaign is unbelievable.

Dean: It is, but you know, Tavis, there's something that's more impressive. One of the things that nobody understood in the last campaign was that the Internet is not just an ATM machine; it's a community of people. These candidates have learned a lot in four years. The technology has improved - YouTube, for example, didn't exist four years ago, or not in the form it does now.

So if you treat the Internet as a group of people that just don't happen to be in a community in front of you but are stretched out all over the country and treat them with respect, you then get to one of the themes that I talk about, which is the two-way campaign. People are sick - especially young people - are sick of having politicians talk at them.

They want to be able to have input into the platform. They want to have input into what folks think. Not just through pollsters and focus groups, either. The Internet allows you to do that. For those who don't use the Internet very much, we need to be at their doorsteps introducing ourselves and saying, “I'm a Democrat. Can you tell me what it is that you're really worried about in this country?”

"Can you tell us what you think we should do about some of these things?" Listen to people first, and then that gives you a great way to do that. And it's a very, very powerful tool.

Tavis: I've got three minutes left in this conversation and I wouldn't be doing my job if I didn't set the Democratic chairman up to beat up on the Republican president. (Laughs) I'm being funny, but seriously -

Dean: I'll be kind.

Tavis: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I know you're going to do that; that's why I prefaced it that way. I want to raise three issues in the news of late to get your take on how the president has handled or mishandled these issues, as it were. Immigration.

Dean: Actually, I think the president - the biggest problem with the president on immigration is he can't deliver any votes anymore. Ever since Hurricane Katrina this president's been a lame duck. His presidency effectively ended with his response to Katrina. That's when people lost confidence in his ability to be president.

So he doesn't have any clout anymore. He can't get us an immigration bill. We had a decent, comprehensive immigration bill, except the Republicans are blocking it. The president goes to Capitol Hill; he can't get them to deliver. So that's the biggest problem. The problem is not his views on immigration - there's some things we disagree over. The problem is he can't deliver the Republicans to get us an agreement.

Tavis: The Democrats did not succeed - depending on how one defines success - the measure did not pass, but Chuck Schumer out of New York, of course, says that the measure was successful because the majority of the Senate voted in support of that no confidence vote against the attorney general Alberto Gonzalez. The president's still standing firm behind his man.

Dean: This president is more dishonest than Richard Nixon. He is using the Justice Department to suppress the vote. Those attorneys were fired because they didn't do a good enough job suppressing the vote. It is outrageous. In fact, one of them actually did his job well enough that he was investigating complaints about the Republicans suppressing the vote.

The Justice Department is becoming a laughingstock, and George Bush makes Richard Nixon look like an honest man, he really does. What's going on is a disgrace. To use the Justice Department, which is supposed to be an independent force in the enforcement of justice in America to suppress the vote of your opponents is a disgrace, and Alberto Gonzalez should not be in office.

Tavis: On the flipside, the president told the Democrats - Ms. Pelosi and the other leaders - "Do not send me a timetable; I'm going to veto it." He did, he won that fight, cleaned their clock on that issue.

Dean: Yup.

Tavis:Democrats have of late said they're going to revive that conversation about a timetable.

Dean: I agree with that.

Tavis: Tell me about it.

Dean: The key is - look, we don't have the votes to get the president out of Iraq. We start off with 49 votes in the Senate. The House has the votes; the Senate does not. But we need to make sure that the blame goes to where it's supposed to be. If you look at all six or seven - however many there are - Republican candidates, every single one of them says we ought to support the president on Iraq.

Turn Iraq into Korea, be there for 50 years. The Democrats say, “Get out of Iraq.” We don't have the votes to get us out of Iraq in the Senate. What we do have the votes to do is, I think in this country, is to elect a Democratic president. The only way to get us out of Iraq is to elect a Democrat president of the United States in 2008, and we will be out of Iraq.

But the one thing we made the mistake in the last one (timetable) is we did not make it clear where the blame belonged. The blame belonged because the Republicans simply did not give us the opportunity to send that bill a second time to the president 's desk. And I think we're going to have two more shots at this; one probably in July, and one I suspect in September, and I hope we'll make good use of those shots.

Tavis: There's no reason why the Democratic chairman should know that there aren't six or seven Republicans; there are 10.

Dean: I know; there's 10, and there's eight Democrats.

Tavis: And that does not include Fred Thompson.

Dean: That's right.

Tavis: I only know that because on September 27th, we're moderating a Republican forum. And if you think I'm going to have a tough time with eight Democrats, imagine me and 11 Republicans. So.

Dean: There'll be a lot less of them by that time. (Laughter) I have a straw poll, weed some of them out.

Tavis: From your mouth to God's ear. Anyway, nice to have you on.

Dean: Thank you very much.

Tavis: Democratic chairman Howard Dean.

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Original transcript posted at The Tavis Smiley website.



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