TruthOut Interview with Howard Dean

May 22, 2003

  t r u t h o u t Exclusive Interview

As the election season begins to heat up, truthout has begun pursuing interviews with the seven Democratic candidates for President. Invitations have been extended to the Kerry campaign, and we have begun to reach out to the rest of the field. The first candidate to accept our invitation was Governor Howard Dean of Vermont. We at truthout are grateful to him for taking time out of his busy schedule to speak with us

Howard Dean, M.D. served as the Governor of Vermont from 1991 to 2002. Dean is a physician who previously shared a medical practice with his wife, Dr. Judith Steinberg. He received his B.A. from Yale University in 1971 and his medical degree from Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City in 1978. He served in the Vermont House from 1982 to 1986; was elected lieutenant governor in 1986, and became governor in 1991. His campaign website is

PITT: There are nine candidates running for the office of the Presidency in 2004. What sets you apart from them?

DEAN: There's bunch of things. First of all, I am a Governor and a physician. The other candidates talk about the environment, and I have actually done a lot of environmental work. Everyone is going to talk about health insurance, but our health insurance plan is modeled after what worked in Vermont. That is an advantage, having been in a position to get things done, rather than just vote, introduce bills and all that. The second thing that is setting me apart, and is probably responsible for why we are doing as well as we are, is that I am really willing to stand up for the Democratic party. I don't think we can beat this President by being like the Republicans.

The people I am running against have mostly voted for 'No Child Left Behind,' which most teachers think should be called 'No Behind Left.' Or 'No School Board Left Standing' from the school board members point of view. It's a huge unfunded mandate and there's an awful lot of bad educational policy in there. Many of my opponents have supported significantly large tax cuts, which has clearly caused a huge deficit and big problems in terms of job creation. They all supported the Iraq war and I didn't. So there are a lot of these issues that set me apart from the Democratic field, both in terms of my job experience and my willingness to stand up to the President.

PITT: You have done a good job to date of capturing the hearts and minds of the liberal base. What views or beliefs or policy ideas do you have that would surprise some of the more liberal individuals who are considering supporting you?

DEAN: I don't think much would surprise them, because I am very up-front about what I believe. When I was up in Seattle last week, there were 1,200 people who came out. In the middle of it I asked, “How many of you have not been involved in politics in the last ten or fifteen years?” Half of them – 600 people – raised their hands. I went on to talk about the balanced budget and got them all hooting and hollering. I stopped again and said, “Hey, here we are, a roomful of progressives and Democrats hooting and hollering and cheering for a balanced budget.” They all laughed.

People know where I stand. They know that my position on guns is not as liberal as they'd like. We don't have gun control in Vermont. My attitude is let's enforce the Federal laws, close the gun show loophole, and then let each state make as much or as little gun control as they want. People understand that – some of them don't like it, but they know that. I've been very up-front about my views on the war. I'm not a pacifist, I'm not an anti-war person. This was bad judgment on the President's part. Iraq was not a threat to us. As frightful and dreadful as Saddam Hussein is, or was, it was not OK for the United States to attack a country that was not a threat to us.

It's not that I'm always against war. Am I willing to use the military force of the United States? Yes I am. All of this is part of my stump speech, so people will get what they see. I don't conceal my views or make a different speech in front of a moderate than I would in front of a liberal audience. I just let it all hang out there. I think what's attractive to audiences is that I am willing to say what I believe, and stand up for it. Sometimes it is not what they believe, but that's much better than being told by a lot of the other Democrats in the race, “Well, I don't support tax cuts but I voted for a $350 billion tax cut,” or “Well, I think this war is a terrible thing but I did vote for the resolution.” That is what drives people crazy, no matter if they are conservatives, liberals or moderates.

PITT: You mentioned your vocal opposition to the war in Iraq. There were a number of large anti-war rallies in Washington and elsewhere before the fighting started. Is there a reason you never put in an appearance at any of these rallies?

DEAN: Well, first of all I wasn't invited by the organizers. Second of all, I can guess that I had a schedule that was full of a whole lot of other things. I don't know. I didn't, because I wasn't asked.

PITT: Fair enough. You mentioned those 600 people raising their hands to confirm that they had not been involved in politics before. The 2000 election energized an enormous number of people to get involved in politics for the first time, and one of the interesting outcomes of that has been the upsurge of the Green Party here in America. This has caused a fairly significant rift within the ranks of the traditional liberal base. In your campaign plans, at least for the primaries, do you have any plans to reach out to Green voters?

DEAN: They've actually reached out to us. I divide the people who voted for Ralph Nader into two camps. One group is the really hard-core progressives with strong litmus tests, and if you don't meet those litmus tests, then they're not going to support you. The other group is made up of those who are liberal, but who are very pragmatic. What they really want is someone to stand up and be proud of being a progressive. Those people I can get. I don't know if I can get the hard-core people.

For example, there will be people who will say, “If you don't support a single-payer plan, then I'm not going to support you.” Well, I'm not supporting a single-payer plan because I don't think I can get one passed. It's not that I think the plan is terrible, but I don't think we're going to pass a single-payer plan. I'm sort of a pragmatic progressive on most issues. I believe it is really important to be pragmatic because if you're not, the victims are the people you claim to represent. People with no health insurance and so forth.

PITT: There's the old saying that the perfect is the enemy of the good.

DEAN: That's right, that's right. Ted Kennedy said that to me one time, and I thought it was a very wise thing for him to say. The Green Party has called us up in some places and said, “We'd like to work with you.” I think some of that is that they want the best possible choice of candidates on the ballot, so they're happy to get me the Democratic nomination. Some of them won't support me and some of them will in the general election.

PITT: Going to the other side of the political spectrum, do you have an explanation for why the DLC is so interested these days in taking bites out of you?

DEAN: I think there are two reasons. First of all, it's personal. Some of the folks running the DLC feel they haven't been afforded the proper amount of respect or something like that. But I also think it's political. They represent Joe Lieberman and John Edwards, and it is in their interest to try to get rid of us. That's not going to happen. They wish that I would go away. I was particularly perturbed when they came at us the second time on their website, saying at the AFSCME meeting that we were catering to the elite.

Now it seems to me that union members, nine of whom gave their lives at the World Trade Center, are the core and the heart and soul of the Democratic party. Hardly the elite or the special interests, as they were called by the DLC. I know a lot of DLC members, and I don't think their executive director is representing the opinion of the DLC. To be honest with you, every time they attack us, we raise a lot of money on the internet. They're welcome to attack all they want. We're going to need everybody to beat George Bush, and I think sooner or later the DLC is going to have to figure out how to get on board this campaign.

PITT: One of the gentlemen running against you, John Kerry, has seemed rather tentative in his criticisms of Bush. He tries to play both ends against the middle, and seems like he is trying to be all things to all people. It strikes me that he is not being a risk-taker at this point in the campaign…

DEAN: I don't think we can win with the inside-the-Beltway stuff.

PITT: Are you going to be willing to take political risks in going after the administration and leveling criticisms?

DEAN: Don't you think I already have? (laughter) Look, the only way we're going to beat George Bush is to stand up to him. Inside the Beltway, you get trained differently. None of the people I am running against are bad people. Believe me, if one of them gets the nomination, I'm going to vote for them. But inside the Beltway you get trained to minimize the risk, maximize your appeal to every interest group at the same time, and consequently you vote on both sides of every issue.
There was an amendment by Fritz Hollings, who is a deficit hawk as I am, that would zero out the Bush tax cuts. John McCain voted for it, Hollings voted for it, Kennedy voted for it, Harkin voted for it, Dick Durbin voted for it. I think there were twelve or thirteen Senators. Senators Kerry, Edwards and Lieberman all voted 'No,' and then the voted for the $350 billion tax cut amendment, and then they voted 'No' on the final bill.

That's the kind of positioning the American people just don't understand. They think, what is this? Why are you voting every which way? We're not going to win elections like that. People in my party fundamentally misunderstand why this President is popular. The reason he is popular has absolutely nothing to do with the issues. It has to do with the fact that people think he is a leader. The way to deal with a leader is to be another leader, and to be strong in your views and present the American people with a choice. Not to take half of his policies and vote for them, and then say, “Well, I voted for half of the policies, but I thought he was a little wrong on this one.” That's not going to win us this election.

PITT: For a great many people across the political spectrum, the number one issue of concern is the vast and growing power of corporations within government, and even more so within the media. It can be argued that one of the main reasons why the Bush administration continues to enjoy the approval ratings it does is because the news media has been demonstrably derelict in its duties. Where do you stand on the power of corporations in America, particularly within the media? Do you have any thoughts or ideas on how that might be dealt with?

DEAN: I do. I think, first of all, it is true that the media has a conservative bias, and is being well-funded by conservative people like Rupert Murdoch. There is no question about that. But I also believe that part of the fault belongs to the Democrats, because the Democrats don't stand up and therefore there is no other side to cover. We've got to do that. Now, some of them are doing it during election time, but it's a little late. Here's what we need to do. In politics, sometimes one single event can crystallize what the problem is. For me, when the Cumulus Corporation, which owns a lot of radio stations, kicked the Dixie Chicks off their networks – a couple hundred radio stations – I realized that media corporations have too much power. What they were doing was using a public resource, i.e. the airwaves, and removing the ability to view and represent both sides of an issue.

When you have that kind of power, you have too much power. I believe we need to re-regulate the media, go back to limiting the number of stations that can be controlled in one particular area, so we can be sure that the American people get moderate, conservative and liberal points of view.

PITT: You're talking about reinstating the Fairness Doctrine.

DEAN: Yes, reinstating controls over how many outlets you can own in any particular media market. The media has clearly abused their privilege, and it is hurting our democracy. Deregulation in many areas has simply proved to be bad for America, bad for the American economy, bad for the average working person, and bad for democracy. We need to take a different view. Some deregulation is a good thing. We went too far, and now we need to cut back.

PITT: Given the fact that the Republicans control Congress, if you were to win the election in November, how will you go about getting these kinds of policies through a Republican-controlled Congress?

DEAN: I won't have to. I'll simply appoint different kinds of people to the FCC, and they'll be more pro-consumer and pro-average American than they will be pro-corporation.

PITT: Paul Begala noted on Crossfire the other night that there have been fourteen terrorist attacks in the last eight days. In what ways do you think the Bush administration has failed in this war on terrorism, and what would you do differently?

DEAN: I think we're really stuck in Iraq. We're there, we can't leave because if we do there may be a regime that will be more dangerous than Saddam Hussein, particularly if it is a fundamentalist regime. We've taken our eye off the ball because of the President's obsession with Iraq. We need a new oil policy, something other than “Let's drill in the national parks,” because our oil money is being used to fund terrorism in countries such as Saudi Arabia, Iran and Syria. I might also add that there are these fundamentalist schools set up to teach children to hate Americans, Christians and Jews. That's a real problem for terrorism down the line.

We need to inspect the 98% of the containers that come into this country and are not inspected. We need to give the states and municipalities the money we promised them to help fight terrorism on the local level. We need to buy the Russian plutonium stocks the President said he was going to buy, and has since appropriated very little money for. These are all things that pose immediate dangers to the United States, and the President has done nothing about them whatsoever.

PITT: Including, I might add, setting aside exactly zero dollars in the new budget for rebuilding post-war Afghanistan.

DEAN: What Bush is doing in Afghanistan is a huge problem, and bodes very ill for what is going to happen in Iraq. The President has taken his eye off the ball in Afghanistan. I supported the invasion of Afghanistan and the elimination of the Taliban. I thought that group was a clear and present danger to the United States, and I supported what the President did.
However, there's no follow-up. The best defense policy we could have in this country is not just to have a strong military, but it is to build middle-class nations with strong democratic ideals, where women fully participate in the government.
Those countries don't go to war with each other, and they don't harbor groups like al Qaeda.

We're not doing that in Afghanistan. We're making deals with corrupt and crooked and undemocratic warlords in order to pacify Afghanistan. That is exactly the mistake the United States always makes. The notion of 'The enemy of my enemy is my friend' is a huge mistake, and this administration is doing that. If they do that in Iraq, we're going to end up with an enormous problem, as we may well have in Afghanistan if the President doesn't add more peacekeeping people. The irony of this is that all the nations the President insulted before going to war in Iraq are the people we need now. We need more troops, which means we need NATO and the United Nations to get involved in rebuilding Afghanistan and Iraq in a meaningful way. It has nothing to do with being nice to the French and the Germans. It has to do with protecting our soldiers who are going to be seen more and more every day as an occupiers and less as liberators.

PITT: If you win in 2004, will you repeal or scale back the Patriot Act?

DEAN: I would do two things. First of all, I would remove the parts of the Patriot Act that are clearly unconstitutional. It can't be constitutional to hold an American citizen without access to a lawyer. Secondly, it can't be constitutional for the FBI to be able to go through your files at the library or the local video store, to see what you've taken out in the last week, without a warrant. The other thing I would do is appoint judges that would uphold the constitution. This President is appointing people from the far-right Federalist Society who have a different view of the constitution than most Americans. I hate to agree with anything Dick Nixon said, but Dick Nixon used to say that he wanted strict constructionists for the bench. This President is appointing right-wing judicial activists. We need strict constructionists that believe in the constitution and will uphold it as written.

PITT: Are there any other Executive Orders or bills sent down by this administration that you'd like to take a hack at?

DEAN: I'm sure there are many. The one that came up is attempting to undo the 'Wilderness' designations in Utah. It's a typical example of how the President puts aside the interests of 200 million plus people in favor of the interests of just a few.

PITT: The Israel-Palestine situation has once again reverted to terrible violence…

DEAN: That's because this President, unlike his predecessors, has disengaged from the Middle East. This recent visit by Secretary Powell is the first interest he's shown in the Middle East for about two years. My view is that there is the possibility for peace in the Middle East, but it is going to be very difficult, and we've got to have very intense American involvement to get it done. We're going to have to have some willingness, both on the Palestinian side and the Israeli side, to compromise.

PITT: Would you say this has been a failure of leadership on all fronts – Palestine, Israel and America?

DEAN: I think the biggest failure of leadership has been with the President. Other Presidents have succeeded in making significant progress, particularly Presidents Carter and Clinton. Were we to apply that kind of energy to those discussions, I think we could make progress. Of all the Arab people, the Palestinians are most likely to be able to maintain a democratic state. Many Palestinians have lived in democratic states, including a million Israeli Arabs. Women among the Palestinians play a larger governmental role than any other Arab society.

But we've got to stop the terror. You can't get the Israelis out of the West Bank if, all of a sudden, a bomb goes off and kills 26 kids at a bar mitzvah. Of course they're going to go back. You stop the terror by changing our oil policy and confronting those who are funding the terror, and then you begin the process of moving out and ultimately dismantling the settlements, and setting up the states side by side. But the key is the terror, and the key to stopping the terror is America.

PITT: One of your opponents in this race, Senator Bob Graham, has been remarkably vocal of late about the Bush administration's foot-dragging and lack of candor regarding the September 11 Report and the investigation into the attacks. If you were to get the nomination, would you reach out to Senator Graham and assist his pursuit of this matter?

DEAN: Yes. I have enormous respect for Bob Graham. He's a lot more conservative than I am, but he is a real straight shooter first of all. Secondly, he is the only Senator that I believe is in a position to know, because of the committees he serves on in the Senate. When he makes a charge like that, I think you have to assume that there is a lot of substance to it.

PITT: He has recently come out with the word 'Cover-up.'

DEAN: That's right. I'm not in a position to know if that's true or not, but he is in a position to know if that's true. I've known Bob Graham for a long time. When I was chairman of the National Governors Association, I worked with him. I have a huge amount of respect for him, and I think there is probably merit to what he is talking about.

PITT: It is axiomatic in politics that you run to the left in Democratic primaries, and then run to the center in the general election. Do you have a plan for how you will do this, how you will run to the center, while still maintaining the support of the liberal base?

DEAN: I don't think I've run to the left. I am who I am, and I say who I am. I'm not saying anything different than I've said in my Governor's races. I don't think you run to the left or you run to the center. You go out there and lay out your ideas, and your ideas are the same in the primaries as they are in the general election. I'm more conservative on budgets and guns, and I'm pretty liberal on civil rights and health insurance and investing in children. People are just going to have to make up their minds if they can deal with all these different positions. I'm not unwilling to change positions based on facts, but I am unwilling to change positions based on polls.

I didn't do that during the Iraq war. I think this war was a mistake from a strategic point of view, and even when 70% of the people were for it, you didn't see me flopping around and saying, “Well, on the one hand, and then on the other hand,” because the evidence didn't change. I think it is very unlikely that I am going to try to run to the left and run to the center. I am who I am and my positions are what they are. While I certainly want to listen to the American people, I don't imagine how I would change my positions because I won the nomination.

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