Capitol Letter: Howard Who?

A little-known governor from an obscure state wants to run for president. The movers and shakers don't think he has a chance, but against all odds he persists. The script worked for Jimmy Carter, a peanut farmer who promised he would never lie to us, and for Bill Clinton, whose promise to "end welfare as we know it" persuaded swing voters that the Democratic Party wasn't just for liberals. Can history repeat itself again? Vermont Governor Howard Dean thinks it can.

Like the last two long-shot Democrats who defied expectations, Dean has a progressive record that he believes voters will find appealing and that can withstand national scrutiny. And you can tell he's serious because he turned up for the first time at Renaissance Weekend, the annual New Year's gathering that Clinton made famous.

The rules of Renaissance forbid divulging any of the spiritual soul-searching and navel-gazing that goes on among the important and self-important, but suffice it to say that Dean turned a lot of heads. Clinton no longer attends, and Renaissance goers miss the buzz that goes with having a star in their midst. Most people had to be told who Dean was, and they were polite about his political ambition. Nobody's ready to commit to anybody three years out, but they were respectful, including the many Republicans who now regularly come to Renaissance. More people knew how many electoral votes Vermont has--a measly three--than knew the name of the state's governor.

But Dean may be on to something. His theme is health care, and he brings a perspective that could be just what the doctor ordered. He is a doctor of internal medicine, and shared a practice with his physician wife before becoming governor 12 years ago. He is betting that by November 2004, President Bush's luster as a wartime leader will have faded, and the country's attention will turn inward to unfulfilled domestic needs. Vermont governors run every two years, and Dean is in his sixth term. He has expanded health programs to the point where almost every child in Vermont under age 18 is covered, and the state provides funds to help senior citizens pay for prescription drugs.

Unlike the Clintons, who espoused the Big Bang theory of health care--universal coverage--and ended up with nothing, Dean has moved a tiny step at a time. He believes you can do more for social justice if you're careful with the bottom line. During the 2000 presidential campaign, he stood with Al Gore in New Hampshire to defend Gore's incremental approach to health care while rival Bill Bradley advocated a bolder plan. Of course, what works in Vermont, a state with a fairly homogenous population and more cows than people, may not translate to the country at large. Still, Dean has a nice bedside manner.

The reaction to a Dean candidacy among the cognoscenti is extreme skepticism accompanied by eye rolling. A Democratic donor responded this way: "$26 million--that's what it will take. I'm going with John Kerry. He's all over the West Coast raising money, and he's got his wife (Heinz heiress Teresa Heinz) to fall back on." Dean has formed a PAC-Fund for a Healthy America--but it's hard to see him attracting the big bucks that would let him compete on the level of a Kerry, or any of the other likely Washington-based competitors who have easier access to special-interest money. Dean shrugs off questions about money with the idealism of the beginner, that it doesn't take much to get started and, if he catches on, the money will somehow take care of itself.

As a New Englander, he might be expected to have an edge in New Hampshire, but with Kerry in the race that advantage is blunted. Because of the reach of the Massachusetts media, Kerry is a familiar figure in neighboring New Hampshire. Vermont politicians come across as a bit quirky, and indeed they are. There's Rep. Bernie Sanders, Congress's lone declared socialist, and Sen. Jim Jeffords, Congress' only announced independent. Dean calls himself "a common-sense moderate," and boasts of cutting the state income tax twice and removing the sales tax on most clothing. He has a loftier vision, too, with a 20-year plan of services for kids, and a 100-year plan of putting aside forest land.

Then there's the little matter of Vermont's sanctioning civil unions for gays and lesbians. Dean defends the law as "a no-brainer," and he's right. Enlightened corporations and local governments increasingly are recognizing the legal rights of same-sex couples. But it's heavy political baggage. "Do you want to spend the whole campaign arguing about civil unions?" asks a Democratic consultant. "He lost the Vermont House over the issue. Just think what we can do with the Congress." Dean acknowledges that a lot of good people lost their seats and he now faces the most conservative House in Vermont history. But he thinks he passed an internal test of his own by standing up against often virulent opposition, and that voters will respect him for that even if they disagree with his decision.

Worrying about how his support for civil unions will play in the general election strikes Dean as a bit absurd given what a long way he has to go. Should he by some miracle of timing and force of intellect and luck become the Democratic nominee, he'll deal with it then. In the meantime, he's enough of a politician to smile a bit and note that in the Democratic primaries, where voters tend to be left of center, he might even be taking a few bows here and there for standing up against the troglodytes and doing what's right.

AND WHAT ABOUT AL?

Al Gore says he hasn't decided whether to run again, but a key indicator may be his Christmas card list. Gore has papered the town with cards ever since he was in the Senate, a reliable sign of a politician on the make. But this Christmas, nothing. One Democratic consultant, who typically got six cards from Gore because she moved around and lists never get merged or purged, didn't receive a single greeting. She's convinced he's not running.

Word is that contributions to Gore's leadership PAC are not exactly pouring in, and USA Today's Al Neuharth predicts in his column that one of the headlines of 2002 will be Gore quitting politics.