Howard Dean: Not Nuancing

Howard Dean breakfasted last week in the 2800 block of Washington's Pennsylvania Avenue, 12 blocks northwest of where he intends to take up residence in 24 months. He ate responsibly, as befits a physician--no bacon, no eggs, no fun. Grits. South Carolina's primary will be crucial.

He has not practiced medicine since August 1991, when he was Vermont's lieutenant governor and was told, while treating a patient, that the governor had died. Last week Dean was in his second week of unemployment after five terms. One advantage he has in the competition for the Democratic presidential nomination is that he is unemployed. As Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan were at comparable points in their quests for their 1968, 1976 and 1980 nominations, respectively. Dean has been to Iowa 18 times. He has been everywhere more than any other candidate.

Another Dean advantage is that he has been a governor, as were four of the last five presidents, and eight of the 18 20th-century presidents. Dean, who has lots of theories, has one about why voters select more presidents from among governors than among legislators. "We're trained differently," he says with characteristic crispness. "We don't nuance." (He often uses that noun as a verb.) He means that governors, more than legislators, have to be decisive, to allocate scarcities and make other difficult choices.

A third Dean advantage is that he is presumed to have few advantages, which makes him an interesting story. He has received an avalanche of publicity about how hard it is for a small-state governor to get publicity. So far, he is in the John McCain-Paul Tsongas-Bruce Babbitt tradition of dark horses who enchant the media, then quickly lose.

His biggest disadvantage may be the compressed schedule of Democratic nominating events, which probably will produce a winner by early March. This favors candidates well known and well financed before the Iowa caucuses, now 51 weeks away. However, Dean will be noticed. He has a penchant for pungent phrases and is the most pugnacious of the Democratic aspirants. This sometimes requires him to beat rhetorical retreats.

In his speech last week at a Roe v. Wade celebration--a pandering festival attended by all the aspirants--Dean said he is running because "I don't like extremism." Then he said that unless Bush is defeated, "Next thing, girls won't be able to go to school in America. You watch." Then he said that five Supreme Court justices "are so far to the right that we can't see them anymore." At breakfast he said, well, OK, only three--William Rehnquist, Clarence Thomas, Antonin Scalia. Thus were Sandra Day O'Connor and Anthony Kennedy rehabilitated.

Shortly after the attacks committed by mostly affluent agents of Osama bin Laden, a rich Saudi, Dean said: "What happened on September 11... is mostly a product of the enormous disparity between those who have everything and those who have nothing." He says the tripling of the national debt between 1980 and 1992 caused interest rates to rise. But the basic rate was 13.35 in 1980 and 3.52 in 1992.

He is, however, interesting and refreshingly forthright about medical care, beginning with: "Americans believe that if they work hard enough and spend enough money they can overcome anything, including death." In order to "reconnect" patients with the cost of care, he favors "significant copayments, significant deductibles for medical care so that the patient turns to the doctor and says, 'Gee doctor, do I really need that $150 prescription?'" He says the president's education initiative is a "disaster" because the duties it prescribes for states with failing schools are huge unfunded mandates that will cause states to "dumb down" their assessments to avoid identifying schools as failing.

Unlike all his Washington-based rivals for the nomination, he opposed the resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraq, a position popular with the Democrats' nominating electorate. But his position is limp (the president has not "made the case" for war). Regarding North Korea, he does not nuance: Peacefully or otherwise, we must get rid of its nuclear weapons.

Son of an affluent Long Island stockbroker (George W. Bush's grandmother was a bridesmaid at the wedding of Dean's grandmother), Dean attended private schools, then Yale, before moving to Vermont, a state whose most famous company is an ideological ice-cream maker (Ben & Jerry's) and whose one congressman, Bernie Sanders, is a New York-born socialist. Dean signed the law that made Vermont the first state to give legal standing to same-sex unions.

In 2004 it will be 44 years since the nation elected a Northeasterner president (Kennedy), and 16 years since Democrats had a bad experience with a Northeastern nominee (Dukakis). Four of the six announced candidates are Northeasterners (Dean, John Kerry, Joe Lieberman and Al Sharpton). But, then, Dean can plausibly insist that he, like his state, deserves a special category.