From Tweedle Dick to Tweedle Dean:
Ho-hum Democrats Get Ready to Blow Another Chance
by Daniel Patrick Welch
August 22, 2003
One would think that enough has been said in the realm of blowing Howard Dean's liberal cover. An outpouring of research and truth-telling from the left has left, at least on my own palette, a distaste for Dean rivaled only by that I feel for Joe Lieberman. The fury has been so relentless, that even the Nation (original source of the Dean is No Wellstone warning shot) has felt it necessary to issue a revision of sorts, noting, among other tidbits, that a surprising number of Nation staffers, some self-described leftists, are still stuck on Dean despite his having been successfully outed-or so we thought. .
One new mantra is that Dean is being "picked on." The Nation points out that, despite seemingly favorable coverage, the press just doesn't seem to like him personally. It seems a bit disingenuous, though, to fault the media, whose obsession with Dean, and in particular, whose collusion in sculpting Dean's image as a liberal has catapulted him to the forefront. And yet the mislabeling continues. Hugo Young writes a brilliant analysis in the Guardian ("American Voters Have Two Choices: Bush or Bush-lite,") However, even Young mischaracterizes Dean as "the most lefty of the candidates." This is demonstrably untrue. Many candidate's positions are exactly along the lines of what Young seems to advise: that Democrats need to "abandon their backing and filling, and their belief that being a Democrat no longer adds up to anything more than a milder version of their enemies."
True, the liberals in the race are indeed lagging in the polls, if these are of any value beyond name recognition at this stage-and many pundits will defend their facile mislabeling by qualifying that they are focused on "the viable candidates." Until one of these campaign yields tangible results in the primaries, they will continue to be dismissed. But this quasi-left image, carefully nurtured by Dean's supporters, belies his true positions on the issues. Even if we dismiss the liberals, the fact is that Dean's own rhetoric places him squarely in the middle of the triangulating camp decried by Young and so many others, including, it seems, most Dean supporters, were their man subjected to a blind taste test a la Pepsi v. Coke.
But don't take my word for it. The Democratic Leadership Council, the right wing of the Democrats, until recently touted Dean as "just the kind of centrist, New Democratic governor" needed to reform the party (i.e., move it, in Young's turn of phrase, 'so far into the orbit of its rival as to render itself meaningless'). This is, of course, anathema to the left wing of the party, such as it is, not to mention the left in general. But far from being the man of the moment to rescue the country from this asphyxiating me-tooism, Dean is instead the very epitome of it-every bit as much as the bulk of his rivals for the nomination. By trying to portray his agenda as more "left" than it actually is, Dean is delegitimizing exactly the kind of challenge from the left that might revive anti-Bush forces. While the press is generally focused on Dean's "anger at Bush," or his willingness to "take on Bush," few delve more deeply.
Dean's faux-left image is dangerous, and, despite his supporters almost fanatic belief to the contrary, is actually a hindrance to building a coalition that will "take back America." Go ahead and be 'tough on crime' if you are deluded enough to think it can buy a few (white) votes in Texas (or worse, if you really think the problem with the greatest Prison Nation on earth is that we are somehow incarcerating too few people). Just don't pretend it's something it's not. Try to keep in mind, though, that we live in an age where the extremist cabal in Washington stole the election, in part, by exploiting the disenfranchisement of ex-felons, real and imagined, to get where they are. Scrubbing these disproportionately minority voters is a key element of stealing and keeping power in the GOP grand strategy-in Florida it alchemized a loss into a win, and casts the same, long racist shadow over much of the Old Confederacy. With more black men in prison than in college, "tough on crime" has long been establishment code for institutionalized racism. Charles Ogletree commented, in the lead up to the Michigan decision, that a society whose army is all brown and whose law schools are all white has a serious problem. Those who miss the moral reasons might at least be coaxed for demographic and logistical ones that such "toughness" depends on perspective, and that pissing on your own margin of victory does have its down side. What many of us feel is that it is more difficult, not less, to win such a cynical campaign. And to do so is to try to raise an obscene amount of money, even if it means backing away from the one hard-won mechanism--matching funds and spending limits--that might be built on to rescue the political process from the monied cesspool in which it now festers. And Dean is making noises about doing just that.
This is not picking on Howard Dean, no matter what the more thin-skinned of his protectors might say. The point is that Dean is no different from his more mealy-mouthed rivals except in the packaging that surrounds an old message: a DLC puzzle, surrounded by an antiwar enigma, wrapped into a media hype mystery. The part that makes the left's blood boil is that he pretends to be different. But in Dean's own words: "I was a triangulator before Clinton was a triangulator." The most noted of his "left" positions, his so-called antiwar stance, is also fraught with holes. As a state executive, Dean has been free to wax (and wane) philosophical on his views about the war, never backed into the corner of commiting himself to a singular course of action.
From outside the federal realm of responsiblity, he can project a skepticism about the war which belies any actual positions. He was not a fixture at antiwar protests, unlike some of the other candidates; he, like Kerry, thought it appropriate to temper his criticism "while the troops were on the ground." More insidiously, he has couched his "antiwar" criticism in the same triangulating language of the rest of the loyal (and useless) opposition--it's just that he has been given a free pass for it. He has mused, on occasion, on the need for more troops in Iraq, not an end to the occupation. He talks casually about the eventually downsizing and privatization of Iraq state-run concerns, as if Milton Friedman had given him special tutoring on the issue. He has talked of taking a tougher line on Syria and Iran, whatever that might mean. Short of a crystal ball, it is fairly safe to say that he would almost certainly have voted for the war resolution along with Gephardt and Kerry, or taken Graham's conservative line, voting against the resolution because it didn't go far enough.
In an interview with The Forward Dean took pains to distance himself from the more liberal Peace Now agenda, going even as far as to say that his appearance on behalf of a friend at a Peace Now function should in no way be misconstrued as promoting its agenda. His own view, he offered without prompting, was closer to that of the conservative AIPAC, which Tikkun and other liberal groups vehemently oppose.
It gets worse. With qualified support for the death penalty, an A rating from the NRA, and a no-nonsense pride in being "tough on crime," it is simply astounding that Dean and his supporters have managed to avoid the Bush-lite death sentence that is thankfully hounding the likes of Lieberman, and I suspect, Graham and Edwards as well. On civil liberties, usually the sacred cow of left politics in America, Dean may be even worse. He has used the language and approach of the right in dismissing civil rights questions in criminal trials as "technicalities," or "constitutional hangups." His presidential run has jogged the memory of some Vermonters who have roundly criticized him for what some feel is a gutting of their ability to defend poor and indigent clients [TalkLeft: More on Howard Dean and Criminal Defendants]. On these issues and more he cannot honestly stand to the left of one or many of his rivals: Kerry on capital punishment, Gephardt on health care, Braun, Kucinich and Sharpton on the whole kit and kaboodle. Make no mistake: those who argue that Dean is the progressive wing's hope for "taking back America" are saying no different than their counterparts in hold-your-nose-elections past: shut up and get on board; and don't make waves or we'll give you even less.
You may or may not see the party as a whole capable of emerging from its long slumber to effectively challenge one-party rule by the right. There may be a few embers glowing yet in the ash of the party that once embraced the struggle to end American apartheid. The largely ignored center-left vote of 2000 offered a ray of hope, the opposition party's pathetic response to which quickly dashed.
Most on the left feel, with not a little justification, that any Democrat who defeats Bush will be committed to such a large portion of his agenda that the war on terror, war on drugs, assault on the poor and global control of corporations will rage virtually unabated--prompting the notion that defeating Bush is a necessary but not sufficient component of this change. Any chance at breaking this cycle must come from the left, with a true, people-focused agenda based on principle and substance and not on the mere rhetoric of opposition. One thing we don't need a crystal ball for is to know that Howard Dean is not the vehicle for this change in direction.
Daniel Patrick Welch lives and writes in Salem, Massachusetts, USA, with his wife, Julia Nambalirwa-Lugudde. Together they run The Greenhouse School. He has appeared on radio [interview available here]. Past articles and translations are available at www.danielpwelch.com. © 2003 Daniel Patrick Welch. Reprint permission granted.