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One-on-One with Howard Dean

(Paul Morigi/WireImage)

“So I’m going to answer your question, but I want to preface it by saying most people do not vote on policies. They think they do, but they don’t. Even smart, educated people who think they do even more so don’t.”

Howard Dean, before his 2004 presidential campaign, served as the Governor of Vermont from 1991 to 2003, as well as the chairman of the National Governors Association from 1994 to 1995. Governor Dean led the 2004 Democratic primary field at the outset, fueled in part by the support of many younger voters and success in the then-emergent area of online, grassroots campaign financing. He dropped out of the race in February of 2004 and endorsed John Kerry. Since then, Governor Dean has remained active in Democratic Party politics, including serving as chairman of the Democratic National Committee. Since leaving that post in 2009, he has taught courses at Hofstra, Williams, and Yale. He joins Merion West‘s editor Erich Prince to share his thoughts on the 2020 Democratic Party presidential primaries, the various ideas being put forward by the candidates, and to reflect on lessons learned from his own experiences running for president that may be relevant to candidates today.

I want to start off by talking about this debate or discussion within the Democratic Party between those candidates who have chosen to go on the Fox News town hall and those who haven’t. I know that Bernie Sanders, Amy Klobuchar, Mayor Buttigieg, and Kirsten Gillibrand have already been on or agreed to appear on the network. Elizabeth Warren, I think she called it a “hate for-profit racket” and publicly said she doesn’t want to go on; what do you make about this difference of opinion about people who want to reach out to Fox News and those who don’t?

I mean there’s two arguments—one is that Fox does actually talk to people who don’t normally vote for us, so it’s not bad to have the exposure. The other is that Fox is, in fact, a hate channel and a propaganda outlet, not much different than Russia Today [RT], in terms of the things they say, many of which are not true. [And they] are reported as news. If I were running, I wouldn’t appear on Fox, but I don’t condemn other people for doing it, because there are legitimate reasons for doing it. It’s just that for me, legitimizing them as a news outlet is something that we don’t want to do. Because they’re not a news outlet; they’re a propaganda outlet.

But you’re sympathetic to the fact that maybe some of these candidates are reaching people that they might not have otherwise spoken to?

Right, and I think that’s a choice people have to make, and I don’t condemn anyone else for their choice.

As a little bit of a follow up, I don’t know if you have any thoughts on Donna Brazile, former DNC chair like yourself, having gone to do some work [at Fox News]. She expressed something kind of along those lines, and she said it was rooted in this belief that, “You can’t make progress, let alone reach compromise, without first listening to and understanding those who disagree with you on a critical issue.”

That, I think, is true. The difference is that this is not a dialogue with Fox; they just say things that aren’t true. They report things that are false, day after day after day. Many of them are based on hatred of others: hatred of people of color, hatred of women, hatred of Muslims, so with all due respect to Donna, whom I consider to be a good friend, I simply don’t think Fox has legitimacy as a news outlet in any way. There are good people I like. I like Chris Wallace a lot. I think he’s a good newsperson, and I’ve been on his show a number of times. There just came a point where I thought my presence on Fox would just legitimize a hate organization.

I watched your CBS news interview in February, and you’ve spoken a lot about the Democratic party being increasingly [composed of] people of color, younger people, and women. So now, about the various candidates running for office for the Democratic primary; we’ve got a whole host of them. I’m thinking back to the 2008 debates; I remember this moment when Bill Richardson says something to the effect of, “With all due respect, Senator, this country elects governors.” And that was kind of his punchline. You obviously ran for president as a successful six-term governor. With that said, there’s a whole variety of backgrounds [with] these candidates; we’ve got Andrew Yang, who did Venture for America. Castro, a former cabinet official, and a whole host of governors and senators. When all these people of different backgrounds get on the debate stage, how is that going to inform the discussion and bring in a diversity of viewpoints?

Well, for many of the people, obviously people have some idea who Elizabeth Warren is, they certainly know who Bernie and Biden are. But for many of these people, this is the first look at them, other than the town meetings. CNN has them; MSNBC has had them. Those are important: if you’re going to consider a candidate that you’ve never heard of, you want to see them—and you want to see what they have to say. And to a lesser extent, when there are ten people on a stage, which is what’s going to happen, it’s harder to sort them out in a debate. But this is the chance. This is how Pete Buttigieg did it. Nobody had ever heard of Pete Buttigieg, but now he’s at eight or nine percent, which is enough to get him into the final six or eight, if it were held today. These debates are important because they are an opportunity for candidates who nobody’s ever heard of or are two percent in the polls to grab somebody and say, “Hey, this guy really has it together on climate change—or whatever it is.”

This is a great segue into my next question. You mentioned climate change; it’s obviously been a priority for many candidates. Governor Inslee, for example, has been very vocal on it. What are some of the big ideas coming out from different candidates which you personally like or think will be persuasive to an electorate? I know Andrew Yang has been very vocal on universal basic income. When I spoke with Governor Hickenlooper, he talked about vocational education programs in Colorado. What are some of your favorite ideas coming out of the primary?

So I’m going to answer your question, but I want to preface it by saying most people do not vote on policies. They think they do, but they don’t. Even smart, educated people who think they do even more so don’t. We all vote on emotions, and for people who have been well-educated, they think that the policy has essentially become a proxy for their emotions. The real thing isn’t connecting with someone’s policy, although there are people who do. The real thing is, do you connect with them as a human being. That’s where the real opportunity is.

People have said that the Democratic party is moving left, but that’s not true. In fact, 35 of the seats we picked up were from Kansas, Oklahoma, Orange County, Texas, middle of Pennsylvania. We’re in the center. But the country is moving left. Medicare For All is polling in a majority right now. Nobody knows what Medicare for all is—Bernie Sanders’ definition of Medicare for All isn’t the same as Kamala Harris’ definition. But that doesn’t matter. Finally, it’s been framed as something people can understand. “Yeah Medicare, my mother’s on it, my grandmother’s on it, I’m on it. Yeah, that’s a good system.” And it is. You don’t do policy details in election time. Elections are never about education. If you make them about education, you are going to educate people, and you’re going to lose, for sure. Elections are about putting out who you are and what your determination is—and who you’re going to help. And the most important question usually in any political poll is, “Does this person care about people like me?” If the answer to that is no, you’re not getting the vote.

Is this what some people mean when they say the Clinton campaign was too heavy on policy specifics?

I don’t think there’s an easy, straightforward answer to that question. At this point, I don’t generally look back on it. That was an important campaign; it was the first opportunity for a woman to ever lead the country, and Hillary obviously was far more capable than Trump is and knew something, which Trump doesn’t. But I think it doesn’t make sense to go back over that. We had three years to do it; we’ve done it.

So back to the point of this diversity of opinions in the Democratic party. I’m struck by some very different reactions to events like the charges against Julian Assange. For example, I was speaking with Senator Gravel last week, and he decried these charges. And he went so far as to say that Assange should win a Nobel Peace Prize, which Mairead Maguire, the ‘76 laureate, had nominated for him. Gabbard, Sanders, Warren have criticized his charges, while some of the more center-left figures like Joe Manchin and Joe Biden have spoken fairly critically of Assange. Is this a good example of the diversity of opinions?

This is actually not a diversity of opinions inside the Democratic Party. This is a debate about free speech and how far the First Amendment goes. In a sense, there’s some value to both sides of this argument. I come down on the side that Julian Assange facilitated the interference of Russians in our election. That’s a criminal offense; that has nothing to do with free speech. I would not say that Julian Assange deserves the same protection as a reporter does, since he’s not a reporter; he’s a provocateur. And he, I think, conspired with a number of people, including the Russians, who fed him the information that eventually ended up on the Internet and biased people in ways that were manipulative and not true.

I actually thought the first WikiLeaks release was fine. I didn’t have any trouble with embarrassing the diplomats because I don’t think they should put those things in emails anyway. If the diplomats are thinking that about foreign leaders and so forth, they should confine that to a private discussion; that’s what diplomacy is about. Otherwise, you’re not very useful as a diplomat. But as Assange became more of an anti-American activist and less of a reporter, I think he forfeited his right to some of the protections that he had.

So you feel that he doesn’t warrant the classification—in your mind—of a journalist?

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I don’t believe he is a journalist. I believe he’s a provocateur and an activist who helped sabotage American elections for the benefit of a hostile foreign power.

Switching gears a little bit, I was watching your CBS News interview from February, which I mentioned, and you were chatting about grassroots campaigning and the possibility of avoiding corporate PAC money when possible. Can you talk a little bit about this trend that’s going on a lot in the Democratic party?

It’s a great thing. We actually started that. Not because I was so smart, but because, as I said before, we had no money, and the place was run by 23-year-olds. And they designed all of this. One of my favorite stories from the campaign is that you come back to the office every couple of weeks because you are on the road—but you want to thank all these people who are killing themselves for you. So I was thanking the crew, and this kid comes up and says, “Governor, we would like you to eat lunch in front of this computer and have a ham sandwich.” And I said “What? In front of the computer, what are you talking about?” Of course there was no Facebook, there was no Twitter, most of this stuff wasn’t invented when I was running. They had rigged up a webcam, and they livestreamed, which I hardly knew what that meant, me having a ham sandwich.

At the same time that Dick Cheney was doing a $25,000 benefit for the Republican National Committee. He raised $525,000; we raised $625,000 online. When you have that kind of grassroots support, you have a real campaign. I believe that Citizens United is the single worst decision the United States Supreme Court ever made, with the exception of Dred Scott and Plessy v. Ferguson. The worst. I think they’ve done more harm to America than any enemy we’ve ever had.

I’ve done a whole lot of democracy building in other countries and the Ukraine is one of them. I remember talking to [Viktor] Yanukovych’s chief of staff before he was rightfully deposed, and we were talking about trying Tymoshenko and I said, “You can’t do this in an emerging democracy, you can’t try your political opponents. Nobody’s going to believe, even if they’re guilty, that they had a fair trial. Send them to the European courts.” And then we’re talking about this and I said, “You really can’t have oligarchs running political parties. Madam Chief of Staff, I have to apologize, I can’t give you this part of my talk because our Supreme Court has just legalized oligarchs running political parties,” which is exactly what the Republican Party has become.

So I think it’s fantastic that all these candidates are saying no to corporate PACs, and I think they should say no to big money in general. And this is an issue where right and left agree, not the politicians. In Arizona, they had a referendum on public financing for campaigns. Both Janet Napolitano and [Jane Dee Hull], they were two governors, one Republican and one Democrat, elected under public financing. The chamber and the labor movement combined to try to get rid of it and failed. And it didn’t die because the public wanted it. One thing conservatives and liberals agree about is that you shouldn’t write your own job description, and the job shouldn’t go to whoever has the biggest and wealthiest donors. That’s something conservatives and liberals agree about. Courts don’t agree with it, and the courts have been bought and paid for by their selection by the Federalist Society. I think we’re in a lot of trouble, not because of Trump although he certainly contributes, because the court system has been corrupted.

To your point, the two founders of, for example, the Center for Responsive Politics, Republican and Democrat, and they were both taking issues with this corporate PAC money and wanting to get on that together in a very bipartisan way. Were you sympathetic in any way to certain points during the Trump campaign when he was talking about, “I give money to both sides, and this is how it works?”

No, look, I come from New York. Trump is a crook. I don’t know anybody who thinks otherwise. He doesn’t pay people, and he stiffs contractors. He has a long legacy of dishonesty. So nothing Donald Trump said gets any sympathy from me; I think the guy’s a fraud. I don’t think he’s capable of being President of the United States, and he shows that every day.

Do you think that—what you are saying with the remarkable success of these grassroots campaign—you’ve seen Bernie Sanders with that. Do you think that it represents potential for the Democrats to have a lot of success in 2020?

I think it also represents success for the Republicans. They have grassroots supporters that will give. I think it’s much better to have a whole bunch of donors giving $200, as opposed to a few people who can then direct policy, as the Koch brothers have, Sheldon Adelson, Philip Anschutz, and others have. What right do they have to direct American policy? That should be done by the ordinary American people through their representatives.

Bernie Sanders’ average donation is something like $27; The Washington Post said it’s actually $29, but the point remains that it’s very small contributions.

Right, and there’s two sides to this discussion. One side we never talk about, which we never talk about now. Having small donors control what happens in the primaries is a really big deal because it means the party is owned not by the big corporations, but by ordinary individuals. The other side that we never talk about, though, is that for example, voting is a responsibility, not just a right. America, since I’ve been young in the 60’s—it started in my generation—has always talked about our rights, our civil rights and so forth; these are important things. What about our responsibility? I think one of the reasons our democracy is in trouble is not just because of Donald Trump—I think it’s deeper than that. I think Americans don’t feel a responsibility to invest in democracy. I used to tell my students this: you get a “D” for voting; that’s the bare minimum you could do. If you don’t do that then you deserve whatever you get, including abrogation of all your rights, which is what’s gradually happening.

Is some of that lack of desire to vote a result of perceptions of—what you were alluding to before—muddying interests controlling the process, so why bother?

Some of that is true, but if you say why bother, then you end up getting what you deserve. If you are not willing to invest at least the time to vote, then you get what you deserve. And you can ask what people in Russia and places like that have.

Would you support what’s been in the news a lot the past few weeks with the Australian elections? Would you support mandatory voting?

I do support that. The Italians have it, and the Australians have it. You’re never going to get it in America because it’s the most libertarian country in the world. The Constitution and the Declaration of Independence basically say the government can’t tell us what to do. But we should have it because it’s a responsibility, just like paying taxes. If you don’t do it, then your country and your system is not going to survive. That’s another reason why I can’t stand Trump; he hasn’t paid taxes in 20 years.

So you mentioned your students. I understand you’ve been back on campus at Yale, at Hofstra…

Yale, Hofstra, did a stint at Williams, and some at the University of Vermont.

How has that experience been?

Been Fantastic. It’s great. I’m bullish on the younger generation. By the way, they’re taking over the Democratic party right now, which is great.

What are you hearing from young people on campus? What is the pulse?

There was a lot of anxiety. Climate change is a big one. They’re worried about the future. They don’t see our generation taking care of the future very well. I think that’s true.

So are you optimistic for the future?

I am. In the last election, which was almost all young people—the young people are more centrist than we are. Our generation is split, ideologically, between the far-right and the far-left, and that was the way it was in the 60’s. This generation is much more centrist, for a bunch of reasons; one of the things I admire about them the most is that metrics matter to them. By my training as a physician, facts have always mattered. I’m less ideological than most people are in politics because the facts matter. If you have a strong ideological argument that you should do x, y, and z, and the facts just don’t support it, then you can’t do it. This should be as true on the Left as it is on the Right. When I was in college, it was the Left that was insane. Today, it’s the Right. It was the Left that was blowing up buildings and all these kinds of things. That is not the way to solve your problems, and they were doing it largely for ideological reasons. Ideology is a set of views about the world that is important to have, but I think those views have to be subject to the facts. This is the time in my lifetime where I’ve seen less facts in politics and more BS, thinly disguised as facts than I’ve ever seen in politics.

Some philosophers say this is the “post-truth era.”

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There’s no such thing as the “post-truth era.” There are fools who babble on that aren’t true, and the problem is we have to make sure that people understand that what they say isn’t true. This goes back to why I don’t go on Fox.

Would you support then this push by some media companies to use the word “lie”?

Hell yeah. A lie is a lie. I also support reigning in Google and Apple and Facebook. If you put up lies and things that you know aren’t true. I mean there are people who have been killed because of what’s happened on Facebook.

Even Chris Hughes, one of the cofounders of Facebook, has gone on the record saying that [Facebook should be broken up].

And then the Right complains that it’s censorship. It’s not censorship to call something a lie that’s a lie. There’s no right to publish crap. No, there is none. And there’s no right to go to a university and say anything you damn well please. That’s for the university to decide whether you’re valuable enough to hear from or not. If you want to go argue a conservative position, argue a conservative position, but don’t pretend that racism, sexism and bigotry is a conservative position because it’s not.

I guess you must have seen some of this firsthand at Yale; there’s been a lot of this discussion.

It’s been all over the place. Yeah, I have no sympathy for the right. Their view of free speech has always been, “Yeah, let us say our propaganda and don’t call us on it.” I mean, the idea that Milo Yiannopoulos has any reason to go on a campus is a joke, and any of the right-wingers who defend him are showing their own complete lack of credibility.

You mentioned being a physician, and maybe that giving you a special sympathy for the facts. There are certain efforts that have encouraged more people with science backgrounds to go into politics. Do you think that that’s an effort that’s worthwhile? Is there some specific quality about being a physician or scientist that is warranted when talking about the diversity of experience in the legislature, of X number of people from X ethnic backgrounds, or X military veterans, and a number of scientists? Is that a substantive point?

Well, it is, and it isn’t. In principle, I’d say “yes” it’s very important, but in fact, there have been scientists in Congress, and they’ve not distinguished themselves. What about the guy that talked about John Kerry’s science degree because he was a political scientist? This is a sitting scientist. He went to MIT, so he can’t be a dope. But who would say that? There were two doctors from Georgia who sounded like they got their medical licenses in a Georgia lottery, for what they knew about medicine. So I think science is important, and I think devotion to the facts is important, but if you’re going to go in there with strong opinions that have nothing to do with the facts—it doesn’t do any good that you’re a scientist. Charles Murray, supposedly a scientist—his views are ridiculous on race, and there’s no backing for them at all. So, I would like to say that being a scientist gives you credibility, but I don’t think it does, unless you’re open-minded.

Last question. You’ve run for president. What are some of the hardest parts of the campaign trail that the candidates on the Democratic side are about to go through?

There were two things that were hard for me. Everybody has to speak for themselves. The first was the pace. I was leading the pack for about three months, and the pace was unbelievable. Four hours of sleep every night for six or eight months in a row. I survived on peanut M&M’s. Physically, it’s incredibly hard. The second eye-opener for me was the press. How thin-skinned they are—and how poorly they served the public. This is true then, and it’s certainly true now. It’s more about clickbait. And for Donald Trump to have an article in The New York Times about all the nicknames he calls everybody else, what? Excuse me, these are people running for the President of the United States? For the headline to be The New York Times and almost every other newspaper across the country, except the Washington Post, “Mueller Report clears Trump.” Nobody had even read the Mueller Report. This is just shocking. I always used to have my fights with the Vermont media, but they would pretty much call each other out if they were over the edge. And there were occasional transgressions and stories that I didn’t think were accurately done.

Were they ever taking a lot of things you said out of context, for example?

There was some of that, but not much. Because everybody knows each other; they don’t put crap in the paper that people aren’t going to believe because they’re not going to believe it. And there was some of that but not much. That was the stock and trade in the press when I was running. They built me up, and then they took me down. There are two stories about this.

One was, early on I had promised Claire Shipman from ABC an interview. By the time we were able to schedule it, I was shooting to the top, and we had a big rally in Boston. But when I said I’m going to do something, I believe I should do it. So we promised ABC an interview, and we went around the back of the rally, and we did an interview with her. Except one Fox guy came to sit in on the interview, which is fine with me; it’s not my problem. But the Fox cameraman began to smack the ABC person in the head with his camera because he wanted angling and wanted to get the guy out of the way. So there was a fight that broke out. And I stopped the interview, and I looked at them and said, “Stop it, behave yourself. If you ever do this again, you are never going to have another interview with me.” Claire Shipman says to my body person at the time, “Don’t worry, we won’t use it.” Six months later, I’m leading in Iowa. And the other four guys—Edwards wouldn’t do this—but Clark, Lieberman, Kerry got together every morning with the press, “What’s the line on Dean?” Because if you are leading the pact, they are going to try to take you down.

So the line on Dean is that he’s an “angry man,” so all the other candidates tag me as an “angry man.” And ABC shows the footage to show that I’m an angry man when I’m defending the ABC cameraperson. That’s the kind of stuff that goes on in the press. I think that’s fine. I am not angry with the press because of that. And here’s the reason: this is the hardest job in the world. If you can’t deal with all that stuff, what are you doing to say when Putin demands Alaska back? We know Trump would go, “Ah yeah yeah, yes sir.” But what are you going to say when something really hard happens with one of these guys that’s willing to blow you up? So I don’t think this is a bad process. But it is much much tougher than being governor of Vermont, I can tell you that.

You mentioned that with all these guys—it’s very competitive—when the dust settles, when the nominee’s chosen, do you all go back to being friends?

Well, yeah—not that we were ever friends to begin with, but I had a lot of respect for John Kerry’s people. I work very closely with Mary Beth Cahill now, who’s essentially the chief of staff of the DNC. And she’s the one who ran Kerry’s campaign that beat me. They did their work; they did a great field organizing; they out-organized us. So it’s not so much that you go back to being great friends. This is like playing for the U.S. Open…

Right, maybe like in football, the two quarterbacks have a respect for each other. They hug each other at the end of the game…

Right, exactly. The answer to that is, “Yes.” I can’t think of anyone I hate that I ran against, unless they are racist and sexist and that kind of stuff. And we didn’t have a lot of that in Vermont.

Erich J. Prince is the editor at Merion West. Erich has contributed to a variety of publications including The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Hartford Courant, The News & Observer, the Orlando Sentinel, and The Hill. His opinion writing has been honored with two awards from the Columbia University School of Journalism. He studied political science at Yale, completing his thesis on the history of polarization in the United States Congress.

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