Dean Hopes and Green Dreams:
The 2004 Presidential Race
by Norman Solomon
August 25, 2003
Let’s take Howard Dean at his word: “I was a triangulator before Clinton was a triangulator. In my soul, I’m a moderate.”
Plenty of evidence backs up that comment by the former Vermont governor to the New York Times Magazine a few months ago. The self-comparison with Clinton is apt. “During his five two-year terms as governor,” the magazine noted, “Dean was proud to be known as a pragmatic New Democrat, in the Clinton mold, boasting that neither the far right nor the far left had much use for him.”
Of course, what a mainstream publication is apt to call “the far left” often includes large progressive constituencies. In the battle for the ’04 Democratic presidential nomination, Dean clearly finds grassroots progressives to be quite useful for his purposes. But is he truly useful for ours?
This summer, many news stories have identified Howard Dean with the left. But Dean’s actual record verifies this assessment from University of Vermont political science professor Garrison Nelson: “He’s really a classic
Rockefeller Republican -- a fiscal conservative and social liberal.” After seven years as governor, the Associated Press described Dean as “a clear conservative on fiscal issues” and added: “This is, after all, the governor who has at times tried to cut benefits for the aged, blind and disabled, whose No. 1 priority is a balanced budget.”
Economic justice has been a much lower priority. During the early 1990s, Dean spearheaded a new “workfare” state law requiring labor from welfare recipients. The Vermont program later won praise as more humane “welfare reform” than what occurred in most other states. But in the summer of 1996, Dean put his weight behind the final push for President Clinton’s national “welfare reform” law -- a draconian measure, slashing at an already shabby safety-net while forcing impoverished mothers to work low-wage jobs.
While some other Democrats angrily opposed Clinton’s welfare reform, it won avid support from Dean. “Liberals like Marian Wright Edelman are wrong,” he insisted. “The bill is strong on work, time limits assistance and provides adequate protection for children.” Dean co-signed a letter to Clinton calling the measure “a real step forward.”
Gov. Dean did not mind polarizing with poor people, but he got along better with the corporate sector. “Conservative Vermont business leaders praise Dean’s record and his unceasing efforts to balance the budget, even though Vermont is the only state where a balanced budget is not constitutionally required,” Business Week reported in its August 11 (2003) edition. “Moreover, they argue that the two most liberal policies adopted during Dean’s tenure -- the ‘civil unions’ law and a radical revamping of public school financing -- were instigated by Vermont’s ultraliberal Supreme Court rather than Dean.” The magazine added: “Business leaders were especially impressed with the way Dean went to bat for them if they got snarled in the state’s stringent environmental regulations.”
According to Business Week, “those who know him best believe Dean is moving to the left to boost his chances of winning the nomination.” A longtime Dean backer named Bill Stenger, a Vermont Republican who’s president of Jay Peak Resort, predicted: “If he gets the nomination, he’ll run back to the center and be more mainstream.”
Dean supporters can point to real pluses in his record; he accomplished some positive things in Vermont, including programs for the environment and health care. During the past year, on a wide range of issues, his tough criticisms of the Bush administration have often been articulate. And many Dean activists are glad to be supporting a candidate who came out against the war on Iraq.
Howard Dean does deserve some credit as a foe of the war. Yet it would be a mistake to view him as an opponent of militarism.
Dean seems to agree. During an August 23 interview with the Washington Post, he said: “I don’t even consider myself a dove.”
I found it conspicuous that Dean did not include the word “Iraq” in the 26-minute speech he gave at his official campaign kickoff in late June (at a time when criticism of the war was generally receding, just before the uproar over Bush’s State-of-the-Union deception on the Niger uranium forgery). But some Dean supporters pointed out that the speech had antiwar themes -- for example, declaring that “we are not to conquer and suppress other nations to submit to our will” and denouncing the Bush team for “a form of unilateralism that is even more dangerous than isolationism.” However, such rhetoric -- much of which has become boilerplate among several mainstream Democratic candidates -- is not as impressive as it might appear at first glance.
What if a Washington-driven war is not “unilateral”? What if the U.N. Security Council can be carrot-and-sticked into a supportive stance? What about “multilateral” wars -- on Iraq in 1991, on Yugoslavia in 1999, on
Afghanistan -- that gained wide backing from other governments? Dean expresses support for such wars.
Meanwhile, Dean has declared his opposition to a pullout of U.S. troops from Iraq -- as though what the Pentagon is doing there now doesn’t amount to continuation of the war he opposed. “We cannot permit ourselves to lose the peace in Iraq,” Dean was saying in August. “We cannot withdraw from Iraq.” But given the illegitimacy of the war on Iraq, what legitimate right does the U.S. government have to keep military control of Iraq? And isn’t verbiage about not wanting to “lose the peace” a classic rhetorical way to rationalize continuation of war by the conquering army?
During a recent interview, reported in the Washington Post on August 25, Dean emphasized that his opposition to the war on Iraq should not be confused with opposing the current -- and future -- occupation of Iraq. “Now that we’re there, we’re stuck,” he said. While Dean reiterated that the war was “foolish” and “wrong,” he staked out a position that the Post described as “whoever will be elected in 2004 has to live with it.” Dean said: “We have no choice. It’s a matter of national security. If we leave and we don’t get a democracy in Iraq, the result is very significant danger to the United States.”
Dean does not give much indication that he wants to challenge Uncle Sam’s imperial capabilities. On the contrary: Dean has opposed cutting the budget for routine U.S. military expenditures that now add up to well over $1 billion per day. And while his campaign kickoff speech stated that “there is a fundamental difference between the defense of our nation and the doctrine of preemptive war espoused by this administration,” surely Dean knows -- or should know -- that much of the Pentagon’s budget has absolutely nothing to do with “defense of our nation.”
Actually, Dean has gone out of his way to distance himself from a straightforward cut-the-military-budget position that should be integral to any progressive candidacy. At a forum this summer, another presidential candidate, Rep. Dennis Kucinich, said that “the only way we’re really going to close the (digital) divide in this country is to start cutting the Pentagon budget and put that money into education.” Dean’s response was notable: “I don’t agree with Dennis about cutting the Pentagon budget when we’re in the middle of a difficulty with terror attacks.”
As if the huge Pentagon budget could not be appreciably cut without making us more vulnerable to “terror attacks”!
Overall, the problem with puffing up Dean -- or claiming that he represents progressive values -- goes beyond a failure of truth-in-labeling. It also involves an insidious redefinition, in public discourse, of what it means to be progressive in the first place.
Dean activists like to say that their man has the best chance of beating Bush next year. But supporters of almost every Democratic presidential hopeful say the same thing -- and, like Dean’s partisans, have scant basis for making the claim. In fact, it’s mere conjecture that Dean would be the nominee most likely to defeat Bush.
On a full range of issues -- from international trade to health care to labor rights to welfare to criminal justice and the drug war to federal spending priorities to environmental protection to gay rights to the death penalty to foreign policy -- Dean’s positions are markedly inferior to Kucinich’s platform. So why not battle to get as many Democratic convention delegates as possible for Kucinich? Granted, he’s very unlikely to be nominated. But a hefty Kucinich delegate count would be a strong progressive statement within the Democratic Party and would provide a louder national megaphone for the values that we share. Kucinich speaks for progressives on virtually every issue. In sharp contrast, Dean does not.
I admire the creativity and commitment that many activists have brought to their work for Dean. Yet his campaign for the nomination offers few benefits and major pitfalls. If Dean becomes the Democratic presidential candidate next year, at that point there would be many good reasons to see him as a practical tool for defeating Bush. But in the meantime, progressive energies and support should go elsewhere.
Part II: The Green Party and the ’04 Presidential Campaign
Activists have plenty of good reasons to challenge the liberal Democratic Party operatives who focus on election strategy while routinely betraying progressive ideals. Unfortunately, the national Green Party now shows appreciable signs of the flip side -- focusing on admirable ideals without plausible strategy. Running Ralph Nader for president is on the verge of becoming a kind of habitual crutch -- used even when the effect is more damaging than helpful.
It’s impossible to know whether the vote margin between Bush and his Democratic challenger will be narrow or wide in November 2004. I’ve never heard a credible argument that a Nader campaign might help to defeat Bush next year. A Nader campaign might have no significant effect on Bush’s chances -- or it could turn out to help Bush win. With so much at stake, do we really want to roll the dice this way?
We’re told that another Nader campaign will help to build the Green Party. But Nader’s prospects of coming near his nationwide 2000 vote total of 2.8 million are very slim; much more probable is that a 2004 campaign would win far fewer votes -- hardly an indicator of, or contributor to, a growing national party.
It appears to me that the entire project of running a Green presidential candidate in 2004 is counter-productive. Some faithful will be energized, with a number of predictably uplifting “super rallies” along the way, but many past and potential Green voters are likely to consciously drift away. Such a campaign will generate much alienation and bitterness from natural constituencies. Ironically, the current Green party-building agenda looks like a scenario for actually damaging the party.
Green organizers often insist that another presidential run is necessary so that the party can energize itself and stay on the ballot in various states. But it would be much better to find other ways to retain ballot access while running stronger Green campaigns in selected local races. Overall, I don’t believe that a Green Party presidential campaign in 2004 will help build a viable political alternative from below.
Some activists contend that the Greens will maintain leverage over the Democratic Party by conveying a firm intention to run a presidential candidate. I think that's basically an illusion. The prospect of a Green presidential campaign is having very little effect on the Democratic nomination contest, and there’s no reason to expect that to change. The Democrats are almost certain to nominate a “moderate” corporate flack (in which category Howard Dean should be included).
A few years ago, Nader and some others articulated the theory that throwing a scare into the Democrats would move them in a more progressive direction. That theory was disproved after November 2000. As a whole, congressional Democrats have not become more progressive since then.
There has been a disturbing tendency among some Greens to conflate the Democratic and Republican parties. Yes, the agendas of the two major parties overlap. But they also diverge. And in some important respects, any of the Democratic presidential contenders would be clearly better than Bush (with the exception of Joseph Lieberman, whose nomination appears to be quite unlikely). For the left to be “above the fray” would be a big mistake. It should be a matter of great concern -- not indifference or mild interest -- as to whether the Bush gang returns to power for four more years.
I’m not suggesting that progressives mute their voices about issues. The imperative remains to keep speaking out and organizing. As Martin Luther King Jr. said on April 30, 1967: “When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, militarism and economic exploitation are incapable of being conquered.” The left should continue to denounce all destructive policies and proposals, whether being promoted by Republicans or Democrats.
At the same time, we should not gloss over the reality that the Bush team has neared some elements of fascism in its day-to-day operations -- and forces inside the Bush administration would be well-positioned to move it even farther to the right after 2004. We don’t want to find out how fascistic a second term of George W. Bush’s presidency could become. The current dire circumstances should bring us up short and cause us to re-evaluate approaches to ’04. The left has a responsibility to contribute toward a broad coalition to defeat Bush next year.
There are some Green Party proposals for a “safe states” strategy, with the party’s presidential nominee concentrating on states that seem sure to go for either Bush or the Democrat. But it’s not always clear whether a state is “safe” (for instance, how about California?). And the very act of a Green campaign focusing on some “safe states” might render a few of those states more susceptible to a Bush upset win. An additional factor is that presidential campaigns are largely nationwide.
In 2000, despite unfair exclusion from the debates and the vast majority of campaign news coverage, Nader did appear on national radio and TV to a significant extent. And of course, more than ever, the Internet is teeming with progressive websites, listservs and e-mail forwarding. It doesn’t seem very practical to run as a national candidate while effectively urging people in some states not to vote for you when they see your name on the ballot -- even if the candidate is inclined toward such a strategy. And that’s a big “if.”
For all its talk of democratic accountability, the Green Party is hooked into the old-fashioned notion that a candidate, once nominated, decides how and where to campaign. It’s ironic that the party is likely to end up with a presidential candidate who will conduct the campaign exactly as he chooses, with no built-in post-nomination accountability to any constituency or group decision-making. Kind of sounds like the major parties in that respect; choose the candidate and the candidate does whatever he wants from that point forward.
No doubt, too many Democratic Party officials have been arrogant toward Green Party supporters. “Democrats have to face reality and understand that if they move too far to the right, millions of voters will defect or vote for third-party candidates,” Tom Hayden pointed out in a recent article. “Democrats have to swallow hard and accept the right of the Green Party and Ralph Nader to exist and compete.” At the same time, Hayden added cogently, “Nader and the Greens need a reality check. The notion that the two major parties are somehow identical may be a rationale for building a third party, but it insults the intelligence of millions of blacks, Latinos, women, gays, environmentalists and trade unionists who can't afford the indulgence of Republican rule.”
The presidency of George W. Bush is not a garden-variety Republican administration. By unleashing its policies in this country and elsewhere in the world, the Bush gang has greatly raised the stakes of the next election. The incumbent regime’s blend of extreme militarism and repressive domestic policy should cause the left to take responsibility for helping to oust this far-right administration -- rather than deferring to dubious scenarios for Green party-building.
In an August essay, Michael Albert of Z Magazine wrote: “One post election result we want is Bush retired. However bad his replacement may turn out, replacing Bush will improve the subsequent mood of the world and its prospects of survival. Bush represents not the whole ruling class and political elite, but a pretty small sector of it. That sector, however, is trying to reorder events so that the world is run as a U.S. empire, and so that social programs and relations that have been won over the past century in the U.S. are rolled back as well. What these parallel international and domestic aims have in common is to further enrich and empower the already super rich and super powerful.”
Albert pointed out some of the foreseeable consequences of another Bush term: “Seeking international Empire means war and more war -- or at least violent coercion. Seeking domestic redistribution upward of wealth and power, most likely means assaulting the economy via cutbacks and deficits, and then entreating the public that the only way to restore functionality is to terminate government programs that serve sectors other than the rich, cutting health care, social services, education, etc.” And Albert added: “These twin scenarios will not be pursued so violently or aggressively by Democrats due to their historic constituency. More, the mere removal of Bush will mark a step toward their reversal.”
Looking past the election, Albert is also on target: “We want to have whatever administration is in power after Election Day saddled by a fired up movement of opposition that is not content with merely slowing Armageddon, but that instead seeks innovative and aggressive social gains. We want a post election movement to have more awareness, more hope, more infrastructure, and better organization by virtue of the approach it takes to the election process.”
I’m skeptical that the Green Party’s leadership is open to rigorously pursue a thoroughgoing safe-states approach along the lines that Albert has suggested in his essay. Few of the prominent Green organizers seem sufficiently flexible. For instance, one Green Party leader who advocates “a Strategic States Plan” for 2004 has gone only so far as to say that “most” of the party’s resources should be focused on states “where the Electoral College votes are not ‘in play.’” Generally the proposals coming from inside the Green Party seem equivocal, indicating that most party leaders are unwilling to really let go of traditional notions of running a national presidential campaign.
I’m a green. But these days, in the battle for the presidency, I’m not a Green. Here in the United States, the Green Party is dealing with an electoral structure that’s very different from the parliamentary systems that have provided fertile ground for Green parties in Europe. We’re up against the winner-take-all U.S. electoral system. Yes, there are efforts to implement “instant runoff voting,” but those efforts will not transform the electoral landscape in this decade. And we should focus on this decade precisely because it will lead the way to the next ones.
By now it’s an open secret that Ralph Nader is almost certain to run for president again next year. Nader has been a brilliant and inspirational progressive for several decades. I supported his presidential campaigns in 1996 and 2000. I won’t in 2004. The reasons are not about the past but about the future.
Norman Solomon is Executive Director of the Institute for Public Accuracy (www.accuracy.org) and a syndicated columnist. His latest book is Target Iraq: What the News Media Didn’t Tell You (Context Books, 2003) with Reese Erlich. For an excerpt and other information, go to: www.contextbooks.com/new.html#target. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. This article is not copyrighted. Readers are welcome to forward, post and reprint.