Ask a random group of Americans, or even Yalies, what they think of Howard Dean, and the odds are you’ll get a collection of blank stares. The former governor of Vermont has been running for President for nearly two years and in that time has transformed himself from a hopeless underdog into a serious (most would say leading) contender for the Democratic nomination. Yet the vast majority of the country still has no clue who Howard Dean is.
This is often true even for people who think they do. Those who know about Dean still think of him as primarily two things: extraordinarily liberal and, as a result, fundamentally unelectable. To both the left fringe of the Democratic Party and to Bush’s cronies, this is why Dean is presently so appealing. To many Yale students more toward the center of the political spectrum, this is why Dean is either alarming or, more likely, amusing.
But Howard Dean is neither extraordinarily liberal nor in any way unelectable, as I hope to persuade those cynics on campus who have spent the last six months throwing away Dean for America buttons and laughing at those starry-eyed radicals who wear them. Howard Dean is not the George McGovern of 2004, leading the Democratic Party left into the wilderness of certain defeat, because, for starters, he is not a leftist. For the past year, people have assumed he is a leftist because he alone among the serious Democratic candidates was willing to criticize Bush openly for waging war in Iraq, while such so-called moderates as Kerry, Edwards and Gephardt have tried to muddy the issue by supporting the war and then relentlessly attacking the President’s execution of it.
As the casualties in Iraq continue to mount, Dean’s position looks increasingly less extreme. And with the national attention focused more and more on the economy, the public will begin to remember that there are other important issues in politics outside of Iraq. When it comes to these issues, Dean is not the fire-breathing socialist so many people seem to assume he is. Rather, he is a sensible realist who as governor of Vermont balanced the budget, cut taxes twice and still found a way to dramatically expand the state’s health coverage to include virtually all children as well as many other Vermont residents who could not otherwise have afforded medical care. In a shocking departure from the established wisdom of Washington these days, Dean is actually concerned that running the largest federal deficit in the history of the United States might not be such sound policy. To combat this unchecked federal spending, Gov. Dean has advocated a complete repeal of the Bush tax cuts. This position has also been labeled radical by many, which I suppose means that fiscal discipline has now become a fringe ideology.
Dean’s social policies are no further left than his economic ones. He is pro-death penalty, in contrast to Democratic hopeful John Kerry. He wants to leave gun control up to the states, in contrast to almost all of the other Democrats running. He favors civil unions, true, but has supported them in Vermont even when doing so was enormously unpopular and almost cost him re-election as governor, showing remarkable guts for a man who is often called a gutless liberal.
My point is simply this: Howard Dean is not a radical. He is not even a liberal. He is rather that rarest of political breeds, a maverick willing to defy labels in order to achieve the greatest possible outcome. He does not blindly vote with his party on all issues, nor does he pander to special interests and special constituencies by bending his positions as contortionists and John Kerry do. If Yale is truly a place that values independent thinking, then we should value independent thinkers who are willing to do what works, and not what is popular. We ought to support Howard Dean, not because he’s a radical leftist, but because he usually isn’t.
Roger Low is a freshman in Branford College.