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Howard Dean: the Progressive Anti-War Candidate? Some Vermonters Give Their Views

Vermonters on Howard Dean

by DONNA BISTER, MARC ESTRIN And RON JACOBS (The Editorial Collective Of The Old North End RAG)

(The Editorial Collective of the Old North End RAG)

Howard Dean the liberal, anti-war candidate? The laughter rings most loudly in Vermont.

As Dean’s candidacy caught fire over the summer, a number of articles have appeared on the net examining his history and current stance on important national and international issues. They all point to a Clintonesque Republicrat whose stances are not far from that of the current administration.

Foreign Policy

Although he publicly opposed attacking Iraq — a smart political move setting him apart from the other Democratic candidates — Dean recently declared in a Washington Post interview that he is now opposed to a pullout of US troops from Iraq. According to the interview, he now feels we must stay as a matter of national security, and not allow another anti-American regime to develop. Of course, events on the ground seem to indicate that the occupation itself is what is creating anti-Americanism in Iraq, but most politicians wont acknowledge that. Deans basic objection to the war was to the Bush administrations unilateral approach, without UN approval. But what about Washington-driven wars that are not unilateral? What if the Security Council were arm-twisted into support? What about multilateral wars like the war on Iraq in 1991, or the ones on Yugoslavia and Afghanistan? Plain and simple–Dean supported them.

Although he would likely be more sparing in its application, Dean has endorsed the Bush doctrine of preventive war, saying that he would not rule out using military force to disarm either North Korea or Iran. Dean has never voiced an objection to the notion that it is Washington’s prerogative to decide which countries may have nuclear weapons, or its right to forcefully disarm those who do not do so voluntarily. In addition, Dean does not support cutting the defense budget, either for routine military expenditures, now at over one billion dollars/day, nor the extra supplementary appropriations to support the Iraq occupation, currently at four billion dollars/month.

Dean’s notion about the causes of anti-US belligerence echoes that of the current administration. He has gone on record saying as much: “I think our freedom is what they find so threatening, our freedom and the power that I think results from that freedom.” This analysis can not honestly address the real issues behind the antagonism the United States currently incurs, and will consequently require ever greater military funding to handle the global consequences. Sounding very much like Bush, Dean has charged that Iran (along with Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Libya) are “funding Palestinian terrorists and fueling terrorism throughout the world.” Do we need four more years of this?

When it comes to Israel and Palestine, Dean thinks the US should become more involved, but beyond that have no fundamental objections to the Bush administration policies in the region. He calls for an end to Palestinian violence against Israeli civilians, but not for a cessation of Israeli violence against Palestinian, nor an end to the Israeli occupation. He ignores Israeli defiance of UN Security Council resolutions and the Geneva Accords, and has been silent concerning withdrawal from Israel’s illegal settlements in the occupied territories or even concerning a freeze on the new construction. His appointment of Steven Grossman, a former head of the pro-Israeli lobby AIPAC and ex-chairman of the DNC, to a top campaign fundraising post reflects his Zionist stance.

Domestic Policy

Dean the Democrat continued to pursue much of the economic agenda established by his Republican predecessor, Richard Snelling In short, this meant a tepid pro-business policy under the guise of fiscal conservatism, often at the expense of social programs serving disadvantaged populations. “One of my most persistent activities during the early 1990s was trying to fend off the more liberal wing of the Democratic Party,” said Glenn Gershaneck, Dean’s press secretary for nearly four years and Snelling’s spokesman for seven months before that.

Conservative Vermont business leaders praised Dean’s record and his constant effort to balance the budget, even though Vermont is a state in which a balanced budget is not required. While other Democrats fought against Clinton’s welfare reform, Dean gave it ardent support. His commitment to a balanced budget would spare the Pentagon from any cuts. So how would he reduce the deficit? During his Vermont tenure, he tried to cut benefits for the aged, blind and disabled, spearheaded a new workfare state law requiring labor from welfare recipients, and has talked about moving the retirement age upwards — some indication on whose backs his budgets would be balanced.

Dean has recently vocalized what seems to be politically motivated support of the death penalty. He told the press after the vents of September 11, 2001: “As governor, I came to believe that the death penalty would be a just punishment for certain, especially heinous crimes…. The events of September 11 convinced me that terrorists also deserve the ultimate punishment.” In subsequent statements he even borrowed the phrasing from George Bush: “When someone gets put to death for a heinous crime, I don’t feel the least bit conflicted about that.”

There was a small, but telling, incident back in 1996, when anti-death penalty protestors who were in town opposing (the Pennsylvania governor) Tom Ridges approval of Mumia Abu Jamals execution sprayed FREE MUMIA graffiti at the Ethan Allen Homestead. The judge ruled, over the prosecutor’s objection, that the defendants could use a “necessity defense”, i.e. to speak of their motivations and analysis of Mumia’s situation, rather than just admit to spraying paint. Dean was disappointed with that decision. “These guys are a bunch of hoods running around our streets,” Dean commented. “I don’t think this has anything to do with the necessity offense –imported hoods I might add. People who spray paint and deface public property are hoodlums not protesters with some higher purpose. I have no patience for that.” Reporter Peter Freyne, now one of Dean’s great supporters, asked his readers at the time to “Remember [Dean's] the guy who once said 95 percent of people charged with crimes are guilty anyway so why should the state spend money on providing them with lawyers?”

Environment

As Governor, Howard Dean endorsed the National Governors Association policy opposing the Kyoto Protocol unless it included mandatory emissions cuts for developing countries, and recommending that the United States “not sign or ratify any agreement that would result in serious harm to the U.S. economy.” For environmentalists, EP, under Dean’s leadership, came to mean “Expedite Permits”, rather than Environmental Protection. Business leaders were especially impressed with the way Dean went to bat for them against Vermont’s stringent environmental regulations. For more, read Michael Colby’s excellent review of Dean’s environmental misbehavior.

* * *

But these are stories Counterpunch readers are likely to know. In addition, we’d like to share with you some details of Howard Dean’s eleven-year governorship more familiar to Vermonters.

Welfare reform

Under Deans leadership, Vermont started welfare reform two years before the mandatory federal program was put in place. Beginning in 1994, one-third of Vermont applicants for cash assistance were subject to work requirements similar to those eventually adopted nationally. (Another third received financial incentives for getting a paying job, and the rest received standard benefits without incentives or penalties). Was the plan a success? Well, most welfare recipients (87%) got jobs on their own during the six years of the Vermont welfare reform experiment. Cash assistance payments went down, and more people were working in the robust economy of the mid 1990s. But according to the official evaluation of the project (published by the Manpower Development Research Corporation in September 2000), total family incomes did not change — but families worked more hours for a total earnings and cash assistance package averaging less that $12,000 annually.

Howard Dean thinks that’s success — and it fits his arrogant and ultimately unfair view of welfare recipients. What is that opinion? Well, in 1993, when defending his welfare reform proposals during a weekly press conference, Dean said: “Those recipients don’t have any self-esteem. If they did, they’d be working.” While he later apologized for these callous remarks, his policies remained firmly in the “they won’t work unless they have to” vein. Dean also used his position as chair of the National Governor’s Association to promote “flexibility” in welfare reform at the national level–a code word for removing then current federal minimum standards and protections for recipients of public assistance. In other words, states could be as mean as they wanted to be towards those out of work and without income.

Health Care

Howard Dean gives passionate speeches about universal health care as a moral imperative, not just a policy initiative. Maybe, somewhere deep in his heart, he really believes that people have a right to good health care. But we sure aren’t going to get there following the path he took in Vermont: tiny increments — adding insurance coverage for kids in moderate income families one year, cutting back their benefits and increasing their co-pays and premiums the next. Adding a prescription drug benefit for low-income seniors, then cutting many of the most commonly used new drugs out of the formulary and forcing seniors back onto older medications with more side effects. His national proposal is similar–not really universal: it would extend Medicaid to people under 25, add a little prescription drug coverage to Medicare, tinker with this, adjust that, don’t do anything to upset the insurance companies or big Pharmaceuticals. Then, when the bill gets big, he would make the cutbacks in the same incremental fashion. For example, began by defunding eyeglasses for kids here, dentures for seniors there. You know, just a few cuts; after all, everyone has to do his share.

Drug Policy

Howard Dean does not like drugs. He had a bout with alcohol during his college years that seems to have left him with the impression that since he couldn’t control his consumption of mood-modifying substances, then neither could anyone else. Consequently, his governorship was a campaign against reasonable approaches to substance abuse. Like much of the US political establishment, liberal and otherwise, Dean does not seem to believe that humans are capable of the discerning use of intoxicating substances. Because he does not believe in such a scenario, the only other option in his bag of tricks is tougher penalties. He has endorsed fully the National Governors Association’s policy, which calls for increased involvement of law enforcement and disavows any form of legalization not only as a policy but also as a philosophy. In short, Dean not only believes in the war on drug users, but also would like to see it intensified.

Despite his background in medicine, Dean has consistently opposed the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes. Instead, he cites medical studies set up specifically with the purpose of denying any medicinal properties to marijuana. In addition, while heroin use has increased in Vermont, Dean did every thing he could to oppose the introduction of methadone treatment to the state. While there are certainly major flaws in this type of treatment, Dean’s opposition to instituting any type of treatment plan into Vermont while law enforcement and the citizenry were growing ever more alarmed at the growing heroin problem illustrates an insensitivity to the very real sociological reasons why people end up on these types of drugs.

While Dean vocalized his opposition to methadone treatment clinics and decried any efforts to reduce the penalties on marijuana use — even labeling the latter as a gateway drug (a statistically questionable claim at best) — the population of Vermont’s prisons increased to potentially dangerous levels. There is a correlation between these two phenomena. The more police go after individuals who use drugs, and the more judges are instructed to put them in jail, the more prisoners there are. Of course, Vermont is not alone in the increase in incarceration. Indeed, it still ranks among the lowest in incarceration rates per100, 000 inhabitants. However, according to the DEA, the number of drug arrests in Vermont increased under Dean’s watch, peaking in the year 2001, with the imprisonment of women increasing by over 140%.

Attitudes towards Justice

Dean’s approach to criminal justice is regressive and draconian. Dean the governor was no friend of the public’s right to legal defense. According to various attorneys in public defender’s offices around the state, Dean underfunded public defense, pouring monies into state’s attorneys, police, and corrections instead. According to the Rutland, Vermont daily, The Rutland Herald, this meant that state’s attorneys were able to round up ever-increasing numbers of criminal defendants, but public defenders were not given comparable resources to respond. This, too, helped to fill the prisons. Its not that crime increased, but that police had more laws that they could arrest people for (and more resources with which to do so). As an illustration of his opposition to a fair defense for all, Dean once stated at a meeting of criminal defense lawyers that he believed his job as governor was to make the defense attorneys’ job as tough as possible. He also tried to block a $150,000 federal grant aimed at assisting defendants with mental disabilities.

Why would someone want to do that unless he had doubts about the validity of the 6th amendment to the US constitution? Is he motivated by a need to appear tough on crime? As Governor he claimed the legal system unfairly benefited criminals over prosecutors. According to his own words, he wanted to “quickly convict guilty criminals,”(so much for the presumption of innocence), and opined that the US needs a “re-evaluation of the importance of some of our specific civil liberties.” John Ashcroft, perhaps there’d be a job for you in a Dean administration.

Native American Issues

All Vermont schoolchildren learn about Vermonts first people, the Abenakis, in their lessons about the history of Vermont. Despite this acknowledgement of the Abenakis special status, the Dean administration, released a 200-page document in 2002 that was prepared by out-of-state consultants, and without a request from the Bureau of Indian Affairs or anyone else, concerning “The State of Vermont’s Response to the Petition for Federal Acknowledgment of the Abenaki Nation of Vermont.” This legal opinion asserted that the tribe does not meet the criteria for recognition. The document has been criticized by local experts — Vermont historians and anthropologists — as being “highly biased and wildly out of date.” Because the legal opinion would have raised a ruckus among many progressive Vermonters, it was released quietly in the final days of his governorship.

Contemporary Abenakis are currently petitioning the federal government for official recognition as a tribe — which would give them legal minority status with access to relevant civil rights laws, help them with grant-writing for schools, scholarships and health care, and make available cultural grants to help preserve the language and oral traditions. As the aforementioned report indicates, Dean is opposed to this petition. This type of vehemence towards Native Peoples rights does not bode well for other First Nations within US borders. Even Vermonters are mostly unaware of this gratuitous and mean-spirited attack.

Given all the above we feel that — except for criticizing Bush’s path into war — Howard Dean departs little, if at all, from the corporate-sponsored bipartisan doctrines that now misrepresent our lives. To see him as a potential savior from Bush & Co. is to delude ourselves, and, furthermore, those on whom many of our states residents urge him.

And here the RAG collective dis-collects. We each have different plans for activity in the 2004 election.

Ron:

I have never voted for a presidential candidate. Indeed, the last one I even wanted to see in the White House was George McGovern, but my 18th birthday came after the 1972 election. The only candidate I have consistently supported for the presidency is the candidate managed in his first several campaigns by Wavy Gravy: NOBODY. Why? Because I honestly believe NOBODY really cares about the poor and the young, especially when they don t vote. I also am truly convinced that NOBODY will withdraw our forces from Iraq and Afghanistan unless they think they will lose the election if they don’t. And, last but not least, NOBODY will legalize marijuana and cut the defense budget. Of course, as one my friends in the Hog Farm used to remind me, if NOBODY wins then nobody loses, especially the people.

Would I vote for Howard Dean if he were running against George Bush? I honestly don t know. If the election were held today, I think I would put a clothespin on my nose and pull the lever for Mr. Dean. However, if he continues to head down the path of imperial foreign policy and domestic repression, I would reserve my vote once again for NOBODY. Even if I did grudgingly vote for Dean, it would be because I believe it is essential that Rumsfeld and Ashcroft become unemployed sooner rather than later. As a resident of Vermont who has seen Howard in action ever since I moved here in 1992, I know he is not what he is claiming to be. Nuff said.

Marc:

Those of you who feel you must go Democratic, should probably work uphill for Kucinich — the guy who actually is what Dean is supposed to be. But I intend to work toward the longer-range goal of establishing a national political party independent of corporate control, one embracing not less-evil alternatives, but values I truly believe in: I will be working to establish the Vermont Green Party.

My thoughts about the behavior of a Democratic or Dean presidency are speculative, but I am not as convinced as Ron, that it would necessarily be an improvement over that of the current maniacs — especially after another 9/11-like attack. Democrats have always to prove they are not soft on crime, defense, etc.: the Gore campaign proposed even higher military expenditures than Bush’s. It was a Democrat that gave us welfare “reform”, and suffocated habeus corpus, and wagged many dogs worth of tonnage. I won’t argue this here in detail. I think the world must now get through a profound historical moment of contraction — of imperial reach, of economic coercion, of environmental footprint — and that the powerful of the American status quo will fight these changes tooth and nail, be they Democrat or Republican. But the changes we are experiencing — in global consciousness, in planetary pathology — are ineluctable. Bush & Co. are providing the clearest possible teaching moment, which, for all we know, may shorten the time needed for change. Another Clinton-like Dem, cloaking his malignancies in liberal rhetoric, may slow these changes down. Who knows? It’s going to be bad, either way, for at least a generation. But if the world gets through it, the US will need a politics that speaks to a healthier future. Thus, I turn to the possibility of the Greens becoming a strong public voice. See http://www.vermontgreens.org.

Donna:

I know that a lot of you are going to vote for Dean — he talks a good game; he can be charismatic and charming. But I’m warning you. This man will tell you what you want to hear, or at least tell you something that has some little kernel of something that you can interpret as support for the things that are important to you. But when the time comes to stand up and lead on the issue, to take on the money interests and backsliders in his own party, that stiff little spine will turn into a slinky.

If you vote for him, it’s your job to stand behind him with a poker and keep him headed in the right direction. Don’t give him any honeymoon period, either–keep the pressure on from the second you drop that ballot in the box. The minute you relax, he’s going to turn right back into what he really is…a privileged, arrogant, middle of the road republican. Put your political energy into getting some truly progressive folks into the House and Senate, and into State legislatures around the country so that there will be more pressure from more directions. We need to get together our sophisticated progressive thinkers to develop policy ideas in every area, so that we’re ready with real, well-thought out counter-proposals for the incremental changes a Dean administration might put forth. If you feel you must, support Dean, do–but then go do the work necessary to make real change.

Ron Jacobs, Donna Bister and Marc Estrin comprise the OLD NORTH END RAG collective. The RAG is an agitational community newspaper serving the Old North End of Burlington, Vermont. This neighborhood is a primarily working class section of Vermonts largest city that has a history of political activism. They can be reached at: rjacobs@uvm.edu