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Dean was sure to disappoint either liberals or libertarians

By W. James Antle III
web posted February 23, 2004

An Associated Press postmortem on Howard Dean's presidential campaign compared his candidacy to a supernova. He came from way out in back of the pack, alongside such long shots as Dennis Kucinich and Al Sharpton, and through prodigious fundraising and an Internet-engineered summer boom was catapulted all the way to front-runner status. By Christmas, he had managed to snag Al Gore's endorsement. But shortly before the first votes were cast in Iowa, he imploded in spectacular fashion.

Dean salutes the crowd after announcing he will drop out the race in Burlington, Vermont on February 18
Dean salutes the crowd after announcing he will drop out the race in Burlington, Vermont on February 18

Dean nevertheless inspired a committed core of true believers who were convinced their man was going to change the direction of the Democratic Party and the nation. Some of them were aging baby boomers like the candidate himself, seeking to reclaim the idealism of their past; others were young students who had never been involved in politics or cast a ballot before. What they shared was a conviction that they were part of a movement that was larger than themselves and in the process of doing something truly revolutionary.

It is understandable that Dean's decision to drop out of the race, after failing to win a single contest where delegates were at stake – the D.C. primary was purely symbolic and did not include most of the major candidates in any event – would be profoundly disappointing to these dyed-in-the-wool Deaniacs. Past landslide defeats by Barry Goldwater and George McGovern were similarly disillusioning to their equally committed supporters. But it may be the case that Dean's withdrawal from active campaigning is saving his followers from an even greater letdown, as their contradictory expectations of him made disappointment almost inevitable.

Dean appealed to two distinctly different groups of voters. One group believed the former Vermont governor was the liberal's liberal, a staunch progressive who would reverse years of DLC-inspired centrist drift during which the Clintonized Democrats lost their way. He was going to stand up to the left's enemies in the Bush administration, the Christian right, big business in general and the pharmaceuticals industry in particular to accomplish a host of liberal objectives: End the war in Iraq, protect the rights of gays and women seeking abortions, reverse the corporate control of our politics and economy and secure universal health care. Dean won standing ovations and a big bounce in the polls by appealing to the angriest, most antiwar and Bush-hating elements of his party.

But another group signed on as Deaniacs because they liked what they saw when Dean was governor of Vermont: Balanced budgets in a relatively small-government state. These voters perceived Dean as a moderate, fiscally responsible – even fiscally conservative – Democrat who would erase the red ink amassed by the Bush administration, support free trade, preserve civil liberties, be flexible on gun rights and dismantle corporate welfare. They ranged from the kind of educated, middle-class suburban Democrats who backed Paul Tsongas in 1992 as he tried to educate his party on the value of business and budgetary discipline to Libertarians for Dean. Even a small number of disenchanted conservatives were intrigued by the prospect of voting for Dean.

It amounted to a fascinating political coalition until you paused to consider: There was no way it would have been possible for Dean to have pleased both of these groups. Dean the libertarian was in contradiction with Dean the savior of the liberal welfare state. Dean the protectionist could not be reconciled with Dean the free trader, even if a belief in both was rooted in his history of policy pronouncements.

Liberal Dean supporters had to hope that his entire record as governor of Vermont was irrelevant to how he would govern as president. In Montpelier, Dean often tried to curry favor with business rather than fight it. He was constantly clashing with the Progressive Coalition that stood behind far-left Congressman Bernie Sanders rather than realizing their policy goals. He had an A rating from that bete noire of the liberal establishment, the National Rifle Association.

Dean's nonliberal backers had to base their faith on even more remote possibilities. For example, they needed to hope that the way he was campaigning for president – and the policies he was including in his platform – would prove irrelevant to the way he behaved in office, or at least less relevant than his more milk-and-water governorship. They had to overlook his promise to raise taxes across the board, rescind deregulation and grow all manner of government programs and instead focus on his promise to balance the budget.

Libertarians for Dean and their ilk maintained they were being pragmatic. Divided government limits what both parties can do and therefore keeps the worse tendencies of both – as well as those of the government they run – in check. During the years where Bill Clinton was president but the Republicans controlled Congress, the worst proposals on both sides were frustrated while discretionary spending was held to a much lower rate of increase than we have experienced under a simultaneously Republican White House and Congress. Moreover, many libertarians reminded us that war is the health of the state. An open-ended Iraq war, they argued, would be more detrimental to liberty in the long term than any temporary uptick in marginal tax rates.

Yet despite Dean's longstanding opposition to the Iraq war, which some libertarians actually favored, there is no evidence that he is a consistent noninterventionist. He supported sending U.S. troops to Liberia without any national interest at stake. Moreover, given that he opposes an immediate withdrawal from Iraq, even his position on the current conflict is more nuanced than often advertised.

While there is some merit to their point about divided government, this argument misses some subtleties. It is true, for example, that government was kept at least partially in check when congressional Republicans had to share Pennsylvania Avenue with Clinton. But there are several factors that ought to be considered other than divided government.

First, the Newt Gingrich-led Republicans were a far more antistatist, principled and energized group than the spendthrift congressional Republicans of today. Republicans have partisan motives to block a President Dean's spending initiatives, but if a Dean administration proposed something truly popular what guarantee do we have that the GOP would take a braver stand than they did on prescription drugs?

Second, many Republicans were ready to make peace with Clinton's big-government proposals a decade ago. While we remember the last administration's health-care reform package as a political flop today, initially the Republican leadership acceded to its essentials. Then Senate Republican Leader Bob Dole assigned liberal Sen. John Chaffee (R-R.I.) to come up with the official GOP alternative and endorsed his resulting plan, which was substantively similar to Clinton's but less expensive and minus the employer mandates. The only thing that kept a compromise along these big-government lines from going anywhere was the 1996 race for the GOP presidential nomination. Phil Gramm was a candidate and he took a strong stand against both Hillarycare and Hillarycare Lite. Dole was forced to stiffen his resolve on the health-care issue to protect his right flank from Gramm.

Third, this divided-government analysis ignores key facts about Clinton. Unlike Dean, who running to appeal to the hard left, Clinton ran for president as a moderating influence on the Democratic Party. Moreover, most of his actual moderation – and willingness to compromise with Republicans – stemmed from the 1994 midterm elections raising questions about his own reelection prospects. Expecting lightning to strike twice under two Democratic administrations might have been overly optimistic.

Fourth, while divided government does frustrate some of each party's government-expanding initiatives, it prevents many government-limiting proposals from seeing the light of day, also. Under Clinton, many significant tax cuts the GOP otherwise would have passed did not come to fruition. And while complete Republican control of the presidency and Congress hasn't yet produced significant free-market reforms of Medicare or Social Security, such reforms become even less likely with Democrats controlling either branch.

Finally, divided-government claims assume a Democratic nominee would have no coattails. Although both houses do look safely Republican, there are a number of marginal seats. It is possible, though admittedly not likely, that electing a Democratic president could cause the Democrats to win a house of Congress. In short, backing a liberal Democrat and he succeeds in implementing the policies you agree with and simultaneously fails to implement the ones you disagree with is a risky strategy.

Impressive though it was for Dean to have mobilized such a disparate corps of dedicated volunteers and supporters, there was no way a President Dean – or even a Democratic nominee Dean – could have kept them all happy. He would have had to position himself in ways more to the liking of one group than the other to get elected and in actual governance would have had to work some of the contradictions out.

John McCain used to quip that he welcomed the support of everyone, including "libertarians and vegetarians." Dean's mix of statists and antistatists wouldn't have panned out and it is probably better for his champions in both camps to be facing the disappointment now.

W. James Antle III is an assistant editor of The American Conservative and a senior editor for Enter Stage Right. The views expressed above represent his alone.

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