Slate continues its short features on the 2004 presidential candidates. Previous series covered the candidates' biographies, buzzwords, agendas, worldviews, best moments, worst moments, and flip-flops. This series assesses each candidate's most embarrassing quotes, puts them in context, and explains how the candidate or his supporters defend the comments. Today's subject is Howard Dean.
Quote: "We've gotten rid of him [Saddam Hussein], and I suppose that's a good thing" (Children's Defense Fund forum, April 9, 2003).
Charge: Dean was expressing uncertainty as to whether Saddam was a bad guy. As David Reinhard put it in the April 13, 2003 Oregonian, "I suppose Iraqis who have endured Saddam's torture chambers, acid baths and other human-rights abuses will think [his ouster was] a good thing."
Context: Dean was actually focusing on the war's long-term cost: "We should've contained Saddam. We've gotten rid of him, and I suppose that's a good thing, but there's going to be a long period where the United States is going to need to be maintained in Iraq, and that's going to cost American taxpayers a lot of money."
Defense: Dean says his uncertainty was about not whether Saddam was bad, but whether post-Saddam Iraq would be even worse. On June 22, 2003, Dean said Saddam was "a mass murderer. I think it's terrific that he's gone." But Dean warned, "If we can't build Iraq into a democracy, then the alternative is chaos or a fundamentalist regime. That is certainly not a safer situation for the United States."
Quote: "We won't always have the strongest military" (Time, April 28, 2003).
Charge: "Howard Dean's stated belief that the United States won't always have the strongest military raises serious questions about his capacity to serve as Commander-in-Chief. No serious candidate for the Presidency has ever before suggested that he would compromise or tolerate an erosion of America's military supremacy" (statement by John Kerry campaign spokesman Chris Lehane, April 28, 2003).
Context: According to Time, Dean "suggested that America should be planning for a time when it is not the world's greatest superpower: 'We have to take a different approach [to diplomacy]. We won't always have the strongest military.' "
Defense: Dean never said when the United States would lose its military supremacy. Nor did he condone this loss or propose defense cuts to hasten it. He simply said it was inevitable. Dean's point was that President Bush's reluctance to join international treaties and organizations set a dangerous precedent, given the growth of countries such as China. That's not very different from what Kerry said in January 2003: "In a world growing more, not less interdependent, unilateralism is a formula for isolation and shrinking influence."