Howard Dean's incomplete damage control.

Politics and policy.
Jan. 7 2004 4:19 PM

The NPR Debate

Howard Dean's incomplete damage control.

Dean Debate Scorecard, Take 2
Dean Debate Scorecard, Take 2

Tuesday, in a debate with five other Democratic presidential candidates on National Public Radio, Howard Dean tried to patch up his weak spots. Here's a look at how he did. (Click here to listen to NPR's audio archive of the debate.)

William Saletan William Saletan

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

1. Anger. This has become such a popular criticism of Dean that even Dennis Kucinich used it in this debate. As in Sunday's Iowa debate, Dean mouthed the necessary clichés about "empowering" people through "hope, not anger." For any other candidate, these platitudes would be dog-bites-man. But in an election whose principal theme lately has been Dean-bites-man, Dean-doesn't-bite-man is a headline, and an important one.

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2. U.N. permission. In Sunday's debate, John Kerry portrayed Dean as a wimp for saying on Dec. 15, "Had the United Nations given us permission and asked us to be a part of a multilateral force, I would not have hesitated to go into Iraq, but that was not the case." Tuesday, Dean clarified his position: "We are not going to give the United Nations veto power over our foreign policy."

3. No safer. Kerry and others have blasted him for saying in the same Dec. 15 speech, "The capture of Saddam has not made America safer." Tuesday, Dean refined his contention: "Saddam Hussein did not pose the kind of danger to the United States that, say, the Soviet Union did." Kerry may have robbed himself of the ability to return to this line of attack. In the NPR debate, he agreed that the Bush team had "left the world at much greater risk, including, obviously, the United States of America. They are not making America safer."

4. Clinton. Dean got in trouble two weeks ago for saying, "While Bill Clinton said that the era of big government is over, I believe we must enter a new era for the Democratic Party, not one where we join Republicans and aim simply to limit the damage they inflict on working families." Tuesday, Dean bent over backward to make nice with Clinton. "I do believe in a balanced budget, and I think we ought to have one, and I think we can do it in six or seven years. And Bill Clinton believed in the same thing," said Dean, adding, "Bill Clinton did a fantastic job as president, because he had extraordinary political skills, bringing people together."

5. Defense. Dean tried to toughen his image on national security by calling Bush weak on North Korea and promising not to cut the Pentagon budget. "Our soldiers aren't getting paid enough," said Dean. "We don't have adequate intelligence, either human intelligence or cyber-intelligence. We don't have adequate special ops forces. … So I don't think that you can say you're going to cut the defense budget and still defend the United States." Dean added that Bush "is about to allow North Korea to become a nuclear power," and in turn, "They'll sell that weaponry to terrorists or to other countries."

Politically, these arguments won't cut it. Dean's complaint about North Korea is that Bush refuses to negotiate bilaterally. Dean also reaffirmed his view that U.S. foreign policy should focus on "diplomacy" rather than "violence." That's an invitation to the GOP to pound him all year for appeasement and naiveté.

6. Gay civil unions. On this issue, Dean made himself more vulnerable. "I actually appointed the six-term Republican attorney general in my state to the chief justice of our supreme court," Dean boasted. "He was great. He actually was the one that wrote the civil unions decision." Until now, Dean was just the guy who signed the bill. Now he's the guy who's proud to have appointed the judge who forced the legislature to pass the bill. I support gay marriage on conservative grounds, but most voters view it as radical. To that problem, Dean now adds an embrace of what looks like judicial activism

7. Taxes. Dean's promise to repeal the Bush tax cuts even for the middle class remains his biggest problem. In Tuesday's debate, a guy e-mailing from New Hampshire put the question to Dean this way: "You're proposing the elimination of President Bush's tax cuts, including the child tax credit. I'm the father of three children. My wife stays at home with them and we have made great sacrifices to raise our family on one paycheck. How can you justify taking this money from us?"

Dean began his answer by saying, "Ultimately, we will have a program of tax fairness for middle-class people." That was even fuzzier than the tease at the bottom of a Tuesday morning Washington Post article: "A top aide said Dean is considering a tax reform plan for the general election that includes a reduction in payroll taxes." In the NPR debate, Joe Lieberman pointed out the inadequacy of Dean's answer: "I don't know what he means when he says ultimately we're going to have a tax reform program. We're running for president now. We have to tell people what we want to do."