I got into a big debate the other day with a Howard Dean fan about the merits of his presidential campaign. I think because he saw that I’m a white, tech-savvy, moderate-to-liberal east-coaster, he assumed I’m a Dean supporter. Once he became aware of my skepticism about the good doctor, he asked me to give him one good reason Dean shouldn’t get the nomination.
The first thing that came to mind was Dean’s incessant flip-flopping on a variety of issues. (This is not to say there aren’t other reasons; it’s just the first thing I thought of.)
Dean’s fan acknowledged that a few of his candidate’s policy positions have “evolved” over time, but rejected the notion that Dean is a serial flip-flopper. At a minimum, he said, Dean is no worse than any of the other Dem candidates.
My challenger had a point, at least about Dean’s rivals. All presidential candidates waffle and flip-flop sometimes. It’s been this way for as long as we’ve had presidential campaigns as candidates need to make the adjustment from representing a state or a district to appealing to an entire nation.
The current field of Dems has some candidates who’ve offered a few doozies. When Dick Gephardt first came to Congress, for example, he said that “life begins at conception” and proposed a constitutional amendment to ban all abortions. Now Gephardt is ardently pro-choice.
John Kerry said in 1992 that affirmative action “has kept America thinking in racial terms,” and lamented “the costs” the policy has had on the country. Today, however, Kerry considers himself as a champion of affirmative action.
Carol Mosley Braun said in 1998 that she’d never run for public office again, yet she’s a presidential candidate now.
Dennis Kucinich had a dramatic conversation before entering the presidential race on the issue of reproductive rights. As Common Dreams reported, “Twice in the past three years, NARAL gave him a rating of ‘zero.'” As recently as 2001, Kucinich agreed with a Bush proposal to withhold international family-planning funds from international organizations that even discuss abortions. In 1999 and 2000, Kucinich agreed with the Right to Life Committee on 19 of 20 votes. Now Kucinich, perhaps the campaign’s most liberal candidate, says that he is definitely “pro-choice.”
(And don’t even get me started of George W. Bush, whose entire presidency has been one huge flip-flop. Remember the candidate in 2000 who bragged about a foreign policy driven by “humility,” who emphasized “compassion,” who boasted of bringing Democrats and Republicans together, and ran on a platform of a balanced the budget and a robust job market?)
Yet, despite these examples, I would argue that Howard Dean has flip-flopped more times, on more issues, than any of the Dems running for president. It’s a continuing problem that may ultimately come back to haunt his campaign. In fact, it’s so bad I decided to make a list.
I’m not talking about Dean’s mistakes or apologies. I don’t care that Dean mysteriously called Latin America “the most important hemisphere in American history” last week. It’s easy to overlook the fact that Dean, when asked last month if he supported gay marriage, said, “I never thought about that very much.” It may not matter that Dean said Saddam Hussein’s fall from power is “probably a good thing” earlier this summer. No one will remember that he falsely accused John Edwards of avoiding talk of his support of the Iraq war before an anti-war Dem audience in California.
I mean straight up, direct examples of Dean holding one position and then deciding he believes the opposite shortly thereafter. It’s happened often enough the last couple of months for me to create…The Carpetbagger Report’s Top 10 Howard Dean flip-flops (in no particular order).
1. North Korea
In January, Dean said on CBS’ Face the Nation that he approved of Bush’s policy towards North Korea and agreed with the president that the approach will be successful.
“I concur with most of the president’s policy on North Korea,” Dean said, to the surprise of many Democrats and supporters who had criticized Bush’s approach. “We have substantial differences on Iraq, but I like the idea and I believe in the idea of multilaterals. And the president’s pursuing a policy in cooperation with the Chinese, the Russians, the South Koreans and the Japanese, which we ought to see bear fruition.”
Just one month later, Dean flip-flopped without explanation, describing Bush’s North Korea policy as “incoherent, inconsistent and dangerously disengaged.”
2. Social Security retirement age
At a candidate forum hosted by the AFL-CIO in August, Dean faced criticism from Kucinich for considering moving the Social Security retirement age. Dean responded forcefully that he wanted to “tell everybody that I have never favored Social Security retirement at the age of 70, nor do I favor one of 68.”
In 1995, Dean praised then-Sen. Bob Packwood (R-Ore.) for recommending changing the retirement age to 70. At the time, Dean said, “I believe that Sen. Packwood is on exactly the right track.” A month later, Dean said “moving the retirement age to 70” was a way to help reduce the deficit and balance the budget.
Far more recently, in June 2003, Dean said on Meet the Press, “I would also entertain taking the retirement age up to 68.”
3. Public Financing and Campaign Spending Limits
In March, Dean promised to raise a fuss if any of the other candidates decided to abandon spending limits and skip public financing.
“It will be a huge issue,” Dean said in March. “I think most Democrats believe in campaign finance reform…. [I’ve] always been committed to this. Campaign finance reform is just something I believe in.” As recently as June 7, Dean wrote to the Federal Election Commission that he will abide by spending limits in the primaries.
Last month, Dean said his campaign was “exploring” the possibility of opting out of the public financing system because of his success in raising money and his desire to spend more in the primaries than his opponents. He said he “didn’t remember” making earlier promises to the contrary and said his campaign was free to “change our mind.”
(Actually, Dean’s flip-flopped on this issue twice. In addition to the recent conversion as a presidential candidate, Dean also did a reverse on spending limits while governor of Vermont. In 1997, Dean helped create a system whereby statewide candidates would agree to a spending cap and participate in public financing. At the time, Dean vowed that the bill would “change the way campaigns are run” in Vermont. When it came time for Dean to run for re-election in 2000 under the campaign finance system he helped create, Dean rejected public financing and exceeded the spending cap by 300 percent.)
4. U.S. trade standards
In August, Dean told the Washington Post that China and other countries could get trade deals with the United States only if they adopted “the same labor laws and labor standards and environmental standards” as the United States. When a reporter from Slate asked if he meant just general “standards” or “American standards,” Dean insisted that he would demand that other countries adopt the exact same labor, environmental, health, and safety standards as the United States.
Last week in the DNC debate in Albuquerque, Dean shifted gears and said he doesn’t believe that our trading partners have to adopt “American labor standards,” saying that international standards would work.
5. U.S. policy on the Cuban trade embargo
Dean, up until fairly recently, was one of many politicians from both parties open to easing trade restrictions with Castro’s Cuba. He admitted as much in response to a question from a reporter last month, saying, “If you would have asked me six months ago, I would have said we should begin to ease the embargo in return for human-rights concessions.”
According to an Aug. 26 article in the Miami Herald, Dean has “shifted his views” on Cuban trade now that he has “surged to the top of the race” for the Dem nomination. Dean said he believes the U.S. can’t ease Cuban embargo restrictions “right now” because “Castro has just locked up a huge number of human-rights activists and put them in prison and [held] show trials.”
6. “Regime change” in Iraq
In March, before the U.S. invaded Iraq, Dean sounded a lot like Bush on the possible war, suggesting that disarming Saddam Hussein, with or without the United Nations, should be America’s priority.
According to an interview with Salon’s Jake Tapper, when Dean was asked to clarify his Iraq position, Dean said that Saddam must be disarmed, but with a multilateral force under the auspices of the United Nations. If the U.N. in the end chooses not to enforce its own resolutions, then the U.S. should give Saddam 30 to 60 days to disarm, and if he doesn’t, unilateral action is a regrettable, but unavoidable, choice.
When the U.N. chose not to enforce its resolutions, Bush followed Dean’s position and launched a unilateral action against Iraq.
Since then, Dean has held himself out as someone who has opposed the war all along.
7. Death penalty
In 1992, Dean said, “I don’t support the death penalty for two reasons. One, you might have the wrong guy, and two, the state is like a parent. Parents who smoke cigarettes can’t really tell their children not to smoke and be taken seriously. If a state tells you not to murder people, a state shouldn’t be in the business of taking people’s lives.”
In 1997, his position was beginning to “evolve,” but he insisted, “I truly don’t believe it’s a deterrent.”
In June 2003, however, Dean had abandoned his earlier beliefs. He said, “As governor, I came to believe that the death penalty would be a just punishment for certain, especially heinous crimes, such as the murder of a child or the murder of a police officer.”
8. Repealing Bush’s tax cuts
A year ago, Dean started out saying he’d repeal all of Bush’s tax cuts. Asked about how he’d pay for increased spending in health care and education, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported, Dean “doesn’t hem or haw” when answering the question. “‘By getting rid of the President’s tax cut,’ Dean says. Not freezing it, mind you — getting rid of it. All $1.7 trillion worth.”
Then Dean began to equivocate. In July 2002, Dean said on Meet the Press, “[T]here’s a few little things I wouldn’t repeal. There are some retirement investment pieces I wouldn’t repeal, although I would have to add some so that lower-income workers could help pay for their retirement, not just people like me.”
Dean’s position changed a little more in March, saying his tax policy would be to “repeal the president’s tax cuts for people that make more than $300,000, with a few exceptions.”
In May, Dean came full circle, saying that he’s back to wanting to repeal “all” of the Bush tax cuts.
9. Troop deployment in Iraq
In June, Dean said on Meet the Press, “We need more troops in Afghanistan. We need more troops in Iraq now.”
In August, Dean said U.S. troops need to stay in Iraq. “It’s a matter of national security,” Dean said. “If we leave and we don’t get a democracy in Iraq, the result is very significant danger to the United States.”
In last week’s debate in Albuquerque, Dean completely reversed course, saying, “We need more troops. They’re going to be foreign troops, not more American troops, as they should have been in the first place. Ours need to come home.”
10. Civil liberties in a post-9/11 America
Shortly after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, while Dean was still governor of Vermont, he suggested a “reevaluation” of civil liberties in America.
Specifically, Dean said he believed that the attacks and their aftermath would “require a reevaluation of the importance of some of our specific civil liberties. I think there are going to be debates about what can be said where, what can be printed where, what kind of freedom of movement people have and whether it’s OK for a policeman to ask for your ID just because you’re walking down the street.”
More importantly, Dean said he didn’t have a position on whether these steps would be good or bad. When asked if the Bill of Rights would have to be trimmed, Dean said, “I haven’t gotten that far yet.”
In March 2003, Dean told The Nation’s David Cord that he believes “portions” of the USA Patriot Act “overreach,” but added, “I haven’t condemned Congress for passing” the legislation.
On August 19, however, Dean accused Ashcroft of taking advantage “of the climate of fear and adopted a series of anti-terror tactics that go far beyond protecting our country and erode the rights of average Americans.” He added that the U.S. should “roll back” the USA Patriot Act.
I’m not reporting all of this to help Karl Rove and the Republicans, so spare me your emails. The truth is the bad guys already know all of this. I’d hazard a guess that Rove has dozens of college students locked up in the basement of the OEOB, sleeping on cots, and spending their waking hours chronicling every word every Dem candidate utters. Rove and the RNC don’t need The Carpetbagger Report; they have an extensive research operation that blows my little blog away.
The point, rather, is for those of us who want a new president in 2005. Rove may know all about Dean’s flip-flops — he’s probably already started crafting the TV ads — but it’s Dem voters who seem unaware of the good doctor’s policy problems. We need to consider whether this is a problem before we vote for our nominee. Do Dean’s flip-flops mean that he lacks conviction? A problem with discipline? These are questions that Dems should consider before we settle on our choice as a party.
Just as importantly, should Dean get the nomination, we need to know what the GOP will be using against our presidential pick once the election season heats up next year. Hiding public truths in the hopes that the GOP won’t notice isn’t an effective plan for success.