Roger Simon Column Interview - A Conversation with Howard Dean

Washington, DC, July 9, 2003

Me: How important is it for a presidential candidate to be likeable?

Dean: I think it's a big deal.

Me: Pardon me?

Dean: I think being likeable is a big deal.

Me: Why? How do you make yourself likeable to the public?

Dean: People have to believe that you know who you are. If they know who you are, then what you say has credibility. As Bill Clinton was quoted as saying, the people will vote for someone who is strong and wrong before they'll vote for someone who is weak and right. I think that is true.

So part of the likeability stuff is not having a big smile and a glad hand; it's about having people respect you. That's very important. In fact, that's more important than having them like you. I mean, it's better to have both, but if they don't respect you, you're not going to win.

Me: In front of an editorial board at the Roll Call newspaper in Washington earlier this year, you didn't come across as very likeable, at least to some in the room.

Dean: When I get before editorial boards, I have three hours worth of stuff to cram into an hour with 25 people all of whom want to ask questions and so I tend not to be terribly likeable on editorial boards. They don't bring out my best because they're going to be tough and I am combative. And so when I get tough questions, I get combative. I'm not one to sort of lean back and say, 'Well, now, boys…' you know, all that stuff, I don't do that.

Me: Do you think it will be harder for you to win the nomination than the general election?

Dean: No, I think it will be harder for any of us to win the general election. It will be hard for all of us to win the nomination, of course, but George Bush should never be underestimated by the Democrats. The reason people like the president is because he's direct, he knows who he is, he's very comfortable with himself and gives an unambiguous message. That's why they like him. They don't necessarily like his message; they like him.

So voting with the president and his preposterous domestic policy agenda that he has, not to mention his foreign policy agenda, is not going to get you elected president.

Me: What does a Democrat have to do to get elected president.

Dean: I think the Democrats have got to know who we are, be plain spoken, very unambiguous and have a better Democratic message, because I think in the end the voting public will choose the Democratic message before they choose the Republican message.

Me: I am not sure where the Democratic party is right now.

Dean: Neither does anybody else; that's the problem. We need to move this country back to the center. This is the most conservative president since Coolidge. And he's probably done more damage to the country (than anyone) since Hoover.

Me: But you also think the Democratic Party is moving too far to the right?

Dean: I do.

Me: And you believe it should move to the center?

Dean: I do. We're not talking about the left; we're talking about the center. I think our party has moved. Our party's moved farther right than Bill Clinton was. We've lost our way, because we've concluded that the way to beat the Republicans is to be like them. And that's the mistake. Bill Clinton was never like a Republican. He was more conservative than the left wing of the Democratic Party, but the things he did made sense.

Me: What's your campaign strategy for the primaries.

Dean: I am going to point out the differences between me and the Washington Democrats that are running. I'm going to be Howard Dean.

Me: What do you think of your fellow candidates?

Dean: I like them. Some more than others. I worked for Dick Gephardt (in 1988.) I love Dick Gephardt. He's one of the most decent people I know. And he's the one I know the best.

Me: It's January, 2005 and you have just been inaugurated. What do you do first?

Dean: Submit a balanced budget or build a path to a balanced budget as Bill Clinton did. Put together a program for health insurance for every American and in my first budget fully fund special education.

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