Dean can win, with a little tough love.

Dean can win, with a little tough love.

Dean can win, with a little tough love.

Politics and policy.
Jan. 13 2004 7:28 PM

Hard-Headed Howard

Dean can win, with a little tough love.

Fixing what's fixable
Fixing what's fixable

Is Howard Dean electable? Should you vote for him? My answers, after watching him for a year, are: 1) theoretically, yes; and 2) tentatively, no.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

I'm not one of those pundits who thinks Dean is too liberal or too Yankee, that he's another George McGovern or Michael Dukakis. The reason pundits analyze elections in such simple terms is that we can't handle the complexity of real life. To us, liberalism is a set of policies. To most voters, it's an attitude. Liberals are condescending. Liberals are naive. Liberals have no moral anchor. Liberals are weak in the face of evil.

Advertisement

Dean doesn't fit that mold. McGovern talked like a wimp; Dukakis talked like a drone. Dean talks like a real person and a leader. That's why he, unlike McGovern and Dukakis, began to catch fire two years before the election, months before his vaunted Internet operation took off. When he has the stage to himself, he's the best speaker in the race. (This Dec. 28 speech in Iowa is a fine example.) He's deft, cogent, and forceful. He makes people believe. You can't teach that.

I've seen Dean appear with people who were taller or more accomplished or for some other reason were supposed to be above him. I've never seen him cowed. A month ago, he went to Harlem to receive Al Gore's endorsement. Gore stands six inches taller than Dean, served for eight years as vice president of the United States, represented Dean's party in the 2000 presidential election, and won a plurality of the popular vote. Yet from the way the two men interacted, Dean was clearly the alpha male. You can't teach that.

Dean has many of Bill Clinton's best attributes. He's a veteran executive and a natural innovator. He knows his way around the policy debates but also knows how to cut through nuances to get to the point. That's one reason why he can do a lot better in the South and Midwest than many of my colleagues imagine. Perhaps, like me, at some point you've watched a Dukakis or a Walter Mondale talking to a Southern audience and shouted at your TV set, "No, you idiot, just say this!" Dean is a guy who can figure out what this is. He talks about run-down schools and disappearing jobs. "You've been voting for Republicans for 30 years," he tells Southern whites. "What do you have to show for it?" Dean doesn't know the region the way Clinton or John Edwards does, but he's got the instincts to comprehend and penetrate cultural barriers. You can't teach that.

So what's the catch? To begin with, Dean can be a bit too confident. He can be—how do I put this delicately?—a jerk. Dean's fans call this candor. Every time he insults somebody, the aides who clean up after him insist that voters prefer a plain-spoken candidate to one who tells people what they want to hear. But candor is just a procedural virtue. If what Dean candidly expresses is arrogance, the candor doesn't make up for the arrogance. Dean's biography suggests he's been very confident for a very long time. Can he learn enough humility in nine months to get elected? I don't know.

Advertisement

Then there's the religion problem. Dean's about as religious as I am, which is to say, he isn't. It's been hilarious watching him fake it: getting his Testaments mixed up, saying his favorite New Testament book is "anything in the Gospels," repackaging his anti-Washington message as a tribute to Jesus. He sounds like a college student fulfilling a distribution requirement in a subject he can't stand. Supposedly Dean told the Boston Globe a couple of weeks ago that he's "a committed believer in Jesus Christ." But Dean never used those words. "Jesus" this, "Christ" that, but always in a historical context, and never "Jesus Christ." Dean's Christianity is nothing like Bush's.

I don't think it has to be. What most Americans care about is values, not dogma. In a New York Times/CBS News poll last month, respondents said by a margin of 50 percent to 43 percent that they believed "Government should do more to promote traditional values" rather than that "Government should not favor one set of values over another." But in a Washington Post/ABC News poll a week later, respondents said by a margin of 54 percent to 40 percent that a president "should not rely on his religious beliefs in making policy decisions." That's the line Dean is learning to walk: talk about morals, not Jesus. As he put it in Sunday's Iowa debate, "In corporate America today, this president has turned a blind eye to morality. We have lost our moral compass in this country."

Next comes the military problem. Dean opposed the Iraq war. He makes a pretty good case  that the war didn't help us stamp out the bastards who hit us on 9/11. But nobody's going to listen to that case unless Dean offers an alternative plan to stamp out those bastards. I've attended Dean's last two major speeches on foreign affairs. Each time, I've come away with a clear idea of how Dean would try to control nuclear proliferation by being nicer to our allies and buying up loose Russian nukes. But when it comes to using force, all I hear is vague stuff about "robust special forces" and "improved military intelligence." Again, Dean sounds like a bored student who's just trying to pass the test. He compounds the problem by repeatedly warning that young men might be pressured to join the military. (He made one such comment in a debate last year and another this weekend.) Voters can smell his indifference. In last month's Post/ABC poll, they said by a thumping 67 percent to 21 percent that they trust Bush more than Dean to "handle national security and the war on terrorism."

I can't stress this enough to Democrats who opposed the Iraq war. Terrorists killed 3,000 Americans on 9/11. The first thing Americans want to know from a prospective president is how he's going to protect them from such enemies. If you don't answer that question, nobody will care that Bush exaggerated Iraq's weapons of mass destruction or Iraq's connections to al-Qaida. The only difference voters are going to see is that one party is serious about getting those bastards, and one party isn't. What they need to hear more from Dean is the kind of thing he said a week ago about Osama Bin Laden: "We would shoot to kill." Can Dean learn to talk more like that? I don't know.

Advertisement

Finally, there's the tax problem. Wes Clark, John Edwards, John Kerry, Joe Lieberman, and Dennis Kucinich propose to repeal the Bush tax cuts for the rich but keep the Bush tax cuts that went to the middle class. (Some would offer additional tax cuts.) Dean and Dick Gephardt propose to repeal all the Bush tax cuts. The Dean-Gephardt position would lose the election, plain and simple. Three months ago, the Democracy Corps, a Democratic polling outfit, asked  respondents, in separate samples, to choose a) between keeping the whole Bush tax cut and repealing it; and b) between keeping the whole Bush tax cut and repealing just the part that went to the richest 1 percent of Americans. The Clark-Edwards-Kerry-Lieberman-Kucinich position beat the Bush position 55 percent to 37 percent. The Bush position beat the Dean-Gephardt position 49 percent to 44 percent.

We saw how the raise-your-taxes argument ended in 1984, with Mondale's crushing defeat. This year, we're seeing it again. I've watched Dean defend his position in numerous debates over the past four months. Here's how it goes every time: Dean's opponents say he'd raise taxes on the middle class. He says there was no middle-class tax cut. His opponents point out that, in fact, there was. Dean says it all went to the rich. Then he says that in order to balance the budget, he needs to take back the part that went to the middle class. Then he says the tax cut was really a "tax" because it led to higher local property taxes, college tuitions, and health-insurance premiums. If you buy that definition of "tax," you're probably one of the 15 Americans who bought Clinton's definition of "is."

In Sunday's debate, Dean said  that after repealing Bush's middle-class tax cuts, he would introduce his own, but not until he balanced the federal budget—which, by his reckoning, wouldn't come until well into his second term. According to the Washington Post, Dean's aides promised a vague interim tax reform plan "dramatic enough to keep the shape of the tax system front-and-center in the general election." A Dean aide told the New York Times Dean would announce this magic plan "after President Bush unveiled his budget." That means after Feb. 2. By that time, Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Missouri, Arizona, and four other states will have voted. If things go according to plan, Dean will have effectively locked up the nomination. He's asking you to nominate him first in the hope that afterward he'll somehow get voters to accept a bitter pill they've never accepted in a presidential election.

I say it's the other way around. In a democracy, the candidate is supposed to satisfy you before he gets your vote. Dean has tremendous virtues as a nominee, and his flaws are fixable. But at least two of those flaws are demonstrably lethal, and Dean has refused to fix them. If he doesn't fix them by the time your state votes, my advice is to vote against him. It's the only way he'll learn.

Research assistance provided by Matt Schiller.