Assessing Mr. Dean

A Washington Post Editorial

Sunday, December 28, 2003, p. B06

WITH THE Democratic field crowded and the first tests in Iowa and New Hampshire approaching, now is a good time for a midterm review of the major candidates. The logical place to begin is with the man whose candidacy was viewed as quixotic at the beginning of the year but who is now widely seen as the Democratic front-runner -- former Vermont governor Howard Dean.

The first question is, which Mr. Dean? The centrist, fiscally conservative, New Democrat NAFTA backer who was governor, or the fiery, antiwar, anti-free-trade populist who has emerged on the stump? We'd prefer the former -- and we suspect that, if Mr. Dean indeed nails down the nomination, we'll see at least his partial return in the general election campaign. Indeed, Mr. Dean is a canny, if loose-lipped, pol: In an interview in August before a rally in Falls Church, he said that while he planned to give the Democratic crowd the red meat it craved, "I won't be talking like this during the general [election], if I get the nomination."

Mr. Dean and his campaign team have been able to energize Democratic voters and to tap into the power of the Internet. Mr. Dean winds up his speeches pointing to his crowd and repeating, "You've got the power," and his followers respond with enthusiasm that no other candidate has generated.

Yet we are troubled by aspects of Mr. Dean's character and personality. He can be condescending, and unwarrantedly so, as when he said at a town hall meeting in New Hampshire last month, "Mr. President, if you'll pardon me, I'll teach you a little about defense." He is quick to bristle, slow to admit error; see, for example, his ill-considered comments about Southern voters and the Confederate flag. He suffers from what he recently described as "smarty mouth," a tendency to glib remarks and unsubstantiated or incorrect assertions. His citation of rumors that Mr. Bush was tipped off to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 by the Saudis and is now trying to cover up that advance warning is one example of such irresponsibility.

Mr. Dean's handling of his records as governor is hypocritical for a man who presents himself as the straight-talking alternative to Mr. Bush. Upon leaving office, Mr. Dean took extreme measures to shield his records from public view for as long as possible -- and made clear that part of his motivation was to avoid any politically embarrassing disclosures. His current position -- that he can't do anything to open the records now that the matter is in litigation -- is disingenuous. Mr. Dean should move quickly to ensure that as much as possible of his record as Vermont governor is available for public inspection.

On matters of domestic policy, one of Mr. Dean's biggest differences with most of his opponents -- and an issue on which he's guaranteed to be flayed by President Bush if he wins the nomination -- is that he would undo all of Mr. Bush's tax cuts, not simply those whose benefits flow primarily to the wealthy. As politically dangerous as it is, that's not an unreasonable position on the merits: The middle class was, after all, not overtaxed by historical standards when President Clinton left office.

But Mr. Dean's stance would be more responsible -- indeed, a lot more like the old Gov. Dean -- if he were not so quick to turn around and promise to spend all those tax savings and not so silent on how to address the looming crises in Social Security and Medicare, problems that he recognized while governor but has been far less willing to acknowledge as a presidential contender. Mr. Dean's domestic program, "New Social Contract for Working Families," includes access to affordable health care and child care, help with college tuition, a new retirement savings program and other worthy ideas. But beyond asserting that "we must be responsible stewards, not profligate spenders," Mr. Dean offers few details about how he would achieve these ambitious goals -- and tackle a deficit set to exceed $500 billion this year.

Where we diverge most sharply with Mr. Dean is on his emerging world view. We believe the war in Iraq was a battle worth waging; Mr. Dean does not, and he has catapulted himself to front-runner status in large measure on the basis of that stance. Now that Saddam Hussein has been captured, Mr. Dean must confront the difficult fact that, had his counsel been followed, the brutal dictator would still be in power. In some ways more worrisome, though, are his shifting stands on postwar policy. Earlier this year, Mr. Dean was articulating the principled position that the war had been a mistake, but that leaving Iraq too soon would be a bigger mistake. But the candidate has retreated from that view. He did not support the administration's request for funds to rebuild Iraq, and he holds out the illusory prospect of a quick substitution of foreign forces for U.S. troops.

While Mr. Dean argues, like his fellow Democrats, for a restoration of multilateralism, he offers thus far little vision of a purpose for America in the world beyond that multilateralism and a narrow definition of security. His fierce opposition to Mr. Bush's policies has won him many Democratic followers; but to rally the country behind him, he will have to describe more compellingly where he would lead it.

© 2003 The Washington Post Company