Howard Dean has rocketed to the front of the Democratic presidential pack with his angry, outsider style and his overt appeals to the anti-war left. But even as the former Vermont governor galvanizes the party’s left flank, many liberals are voicing concern over his stances on some of their most cherished issues.
Many single-issue activists who work on Middle East peace, gun control and drug policy reform — including some who say they were initially attracted to Dean — are becoming increasingly vocal in opposing him. Some are speaking about a “reassessment” on the left and warn darkly that Dean’s stands are already costing him support among core Democrats.
“Howard Dean could be the worst of both worlds for progressives,” said Norman Solomon, a columnist and figure on the left on the West Coast. “He’s not a true progressive, but he’s been tarred as being this kind of Birkenstock leftist. What’s the payoff here?”
Privately, Dean’s supporters say that the opposition of activists such as proponents of Palestinian rights can only help Dean by drawing a bright line between him and the other candidate competing for the hardcore anti-war vote, Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio. To a certain extent, their argument goes, a backlash from the left will aid Dean when he needs to tack more to the center in some of the more conservative primary states. Dean’s rhetoric is already moving right: In an August 15 speech to Iowa’s Hawkeye Labor Council, he touted his support for balanced budgets and the first Gulf War.
Some analysts think Dean will not lose that much support when people look more closely at his stances, because his support on the left comes more from “outsiders” than it does from “ideological” liberals — perhaps an 80-20 split. His moderate stands on issues the left holds dear will hurt him only if he is seen to have a credibility problem, because he has staked so much on the image of himself as a straight shooter.
“Only if the argument ‘Howard Dean is a moderate’ is commuted to ‘Howard Dean is a phony’ are his prospects fundamentally altered,” said independent analyst Stuart Rothenberg.
The co-director of Campaign for America’s Future, a left-liberal group, Robert Borosage, agreed. “The love affair will have a reassessment period,” he said, “but a lot of progressives will stay with him” because they see him as the only anti-war candidate with a real shot at the nomination.
But other Democrats think Dean already painted himself into a corner when he adopted the trademark liberal line, “I’m Howard Dean, and I’m from the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party,” and courted the voters who made him the winner of the online primary of MoveOn.org, a left-leaning organization that organizes grassroots campaigns over the Internet. The progressives who responded to the slogan “tend to be the type of voters who want him to be [with them] 110% on every issue,” said a strategist for a rival campaign, who likened the slogan and Dean’s straight-shooter image to “two logs going in the opposite direction.”
Dean’s campaign, for its part, professes to be unconcerned by any opposition from the left.
“People who try to fix an ideological label on Howard Dean are making a big mistake,” Dean’s policy director, Jeremy Ben-Ami, said. “There is no ideological litmus test Howard Dean is looking to pass.”
Ironically, the left-wing opposition to Dean is mainly organizing via the Internet — the tool that catapulted Dean to the top ranks of Democratic contenders. A Chicago activist who says he donated $500 to Dean’s campaign — the average Dean donation in the second quarter was $112 — has gathered almost 600 signatures on an online petition expressing “deep reservations” about Dean’s Middle East positions, which signers consider too pro-Israel. The petition was posted August 1 and is hosted at the Web site www.stop-us-military-aid-to-israel.net.
“As members of the Democratic Wing of the Democratic Party, The Green Party, Progressives, Independents, and other parties interested in your candidacy, we would like to express our deep reservations regarding your stated positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” says the petition. Citing an interview Dean gave to the Forward in November, in which he said his view on Middle East peace is “closer to Aipac’s view” than to the view of Peace Now, the petition practically begs Dean to say it ain’t so.
“As voters who wish to support your candidacy but have serious concerns about your vision for the Middle East, we respectfully request that a clarification be made on the issues cited above,” the petition states.
The moving force behind the petition, Chicago statistician Jon Bailey, said it grew out of a Yahoo discussion group, Dean for Mideast Peace. “There are some people who think Dean is to the right of Bush on this issue,” Bailey told the Forward. Bailey said he gave Dean’s campaign $500, but now he has thrown his support to Kucinich.
“There’s a lot of people who signed the petition who said [to Dean], ‘I gave you money, but you hurt me.’ He didn’t turn out to be what we thought he was,” he said.
Asked by the Forward to comment on the petition, Dean’s campaign was concerned enough about it to respond with a statement in the name of the candidate. “I recognize both the special relationship the United States has with Israel and the legitimate claim of the Palestinian people to a state of their own,” Dean said in the e-mail statement. “I believe agreements satisfying both sides can be reached leading to two states living side by side in security and peace. To get there, Palestinians will have to crack down on terror and take real steps to make democracy work, while Israel will have to give up some settlements and ensure that the Palestinian quality of life improves. If taking this position means I get attacked by people on both sides of the argument, that’s a good sign that I found a middle ground where real compromise and agreement can be reached.”
The pro-Palestinian crowd is not alone in wanting to stick it to Dean. Gun control advocates are looking to shoot down his candidacy.
One of the nation’s most prominent gun control campaigns is urging its members and the public to reject Dean for his position that gun control should be mostly a state matter. “Dean says he’s from the ‘Democrat wing of the Democratic party.’ As far as gun safety advocates are concerned, give us a Democrat from some other wing of the Democratic Party, please,” wrote the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence/Million Mom March in a press release.
“Some of our members, including suburban women — who are going to be important to any presidential campaign — have said they were initially attracted to Dean, but his views on gun control have given them second thoughts,” said Tony Orza, director of government relations for the Brady Campaign.
Advocates of drug-sentencing reform and medical marijuana initiatives say Dean has a poor record on their issues, too, and claim that his stances will hurt him in certain states, such as California, where many voters support such initiatives.
Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, gives Dean points for criticizing the drug war and federal mandatory minimum sentencing, but said “a lot of people find his drug policy record disconcerting and disappointing.”
“On the two issues that came to his desk [in Vermont] — medical marijuana and methadone maintenance — he went out of his way to do the wrong thing,” Nadelmann said, adding that in certain respects his record was “worse than most… Democrats and many Republicans.”
That assessment is shared by Granite Staters for Medical Marijuana, a New Hampshire Web site that rates candidates on the issue. It gave Dean an “F+” — the lowest grade it gave to any Democratic candidate, according to information at www.stopthedrug-war.com.
The effort that stands to gain the most from any battering Dean might take for not being a true progressive is the campaign of Massachusetts Senator John Kerry. A Kerry adviser described Dean’s conundrum delicately: “While Dean has done a good job tapping into an angry vein, ultimately people are looking for a candidate with the vision to move the country forward,” Chris Lehane said. “What do Democrats really stand for? John Kerry has fought those fights.”