On the Democrats, Progressive Discontent and Obama

In the midst of a historic and heated Presidential election, Howard Dean, the opinionated and passionate chairman of the Democratic National Committee, sat for this exclusive interview to make his case for Barack Obama and the Democratic Party.

We discuss Democratic “cultural values,” the legacy of the Bush administration, the differences between the Democratic and the Republican parties, the current economic crisis, and how to deal with the Muslim world and the “war on terror.”

ALI: The addition of Sarah Palin to the Republican campaign, which has revitalized the Republican base and won over many undecided voters, suggests Republicans still maintain the stronghold on “cultural values.” Republicans portray themselves successfully as harbingers of morality, security, God and stability. Democrats are painted as Godless, elitist, baby killing, homosexual pornographers. How do you convince the American voter that your party best represents their “cultural values?”

DEAN: All you have to do is look at the past 8 years. I mean Bush and McCain have talked for 8 years all about “their cultural values.” Look where we are today? We see bankruptcies. We see a government that cares more about mortgage companies than mortgage holders. In short, they’ve turned out to be a total fraud. Here, McCain is talking about what he’s going to do to change Wall Street. He was part of a huge banking scandal about 15 years ago!

The voters have figured out that the Republicans talk about values, but they don’t really have many. The Democrats, on the other hand, have been quietly plugging along, and really doing things for people. When we took over [Congress] again in 2006, one of the first things we did was we raised the minimum wage. That gets a long way to assure equal pay for women. The next thing we did was restore the Pell Grants (student loans) that Republicans had cut.

But I think we have much better values than the Republicans, which seem to be “you’re on your own, and we’re gonna’ get what we want out of the government and out of the tax payers.”

ALI: There is a Republican monopolization as the “Party of God,” and the party of “religious values.”

DEAN: We’ve made a major effort to counteract that.  We had an Imam from Chicago on a credentials committee in Denver. I think that’s the first time that has ever happened.
We’ve really reached out to Americans of all faiths, including Islam. Because we believe the future of America is diversity. And young people know that. They get what the Democratic values are. They scratch their heads at how the Republicans have been saying all these things all these years, and been doing exactly the opposite.

ALI: Even before the addition of Palin, Obama was up only 5% in the polls. Now, it is tied. We have a three trillion dollar war, a recession, a mortgage crisis, a high jobless rate, record foreclosures, a massive deficit, and our international image is at its lowest ebb. If the Democrats do not win, what does this say about the Democratic Party and also the nation?

DEAN: I mean – I don’t know. I mean, who knows? I’m not a political commentator.

ALI. OK, let’s move on. Let’s be blunt about the economy: who is to blame for the current economic maelstrom? Even if Democrats win, what can they do, if anything, to turn this tide?

DEAN: I think we can do a lot to turn the tide. What Senator Obama wants do is instead of giving tax cuts to Exxon Mobil- what Senator McCain has proposed – we want to give tax cuts to the middle class Americas so they get the benefit of their taxpayers’ money. Secondly, we need to focus on students and make it easier for them to get into college and help [them] build a future.

Third, we ought to have a stimulus package. Fourth, instead of focusing on bailing out Wall Street firms, we should also pay attention to those who need help with their mortgages. What the “Bush – McCain people” are focusing on is bailing out the big corporations. What we need to focus on is that people can stay in their own homes.

ALI: Some commentators have said Democrats bear partial responsibility for Congress’ fidelity to Wall Street and their lobbyists? Can the White House and Congress free themselves of Wall Street influence?

DEAN: It’s been the Republicans who have held the White House, the Senate and the House until 2006 – that’s when things went bad. Republicans had the Presidency; they have to take responsibility. John McCain said he doesn’t believe in regulation until he decided he did believe in it [last] Monday.

You know, these guys are completely incompetent. They’ll say anything to get elected, but they have no idea what to do when they do get elected, which is why I don’t think they are gonna’ get elected this time.

ALI: There seems to be a growing frustration among many Democrats, independents, and liberals about a perceived Democratic passiveness; that the Democrats don’t attack the right wing with the same amount of zeal with which the right wing attacks them. What’s your take on it? And if it’s true how can the strategy be changed?

DEAN: I think we do certainly need to fight back, and I think that Senator Obama has been doing that. I don’t think we want to take the Republican’s example. What the Republicans have done is they have put their party before their country. They’ve managed to split the country in half using all these socially divisive issues. That’s very bad for the country.

One of the things I admire about Senator Obama is that he wants to be the president of all the people, not just those who agree with him. So I think the country will be far better off [with him.] Frankly, you can’t behave one way and then expect something different. I mean if people want four more years of George Bush, they should definitely vote for John McCain. If people want to heal the country, they should vote for Obama.  You can’t behave one way during the election and then a different way afterward and then maintain any credibility at all. That’s why Bush and McCain have no credibility.

ALI: Obama represents a new type of America, which is in fact a historical America. He is multiracial, has an Arabic name, he has a White mom, an African American father. Yet, he also represents another side of America. We see many people openly saying they won’t vote for him due to his race or due to his Arabic name, and there have been sleazy connotations and smear campaigns as a result. What do you think this reflects about America?

DEAN:  We now have two Muslim American Congressmen representing a very diverse group of people. The country has changed. You don’t have to be a particular race in order to get people to vote for you who look like you. It doesn’t work that way anymore. Again, there is unfortunately still some racism. But there’s a lot less than it used to be. And I think the rise of Barack Obama is really the rise of a new generation that has grown up in a very multicultural country, and I think that’s very good for America.

ALI: How can the Democrats woo the Muslim voters who are so disaffected and disappointed by the Bush presidency – one which they helped elect by the way –without being seen or targeted by Republicans as being soft on terror, coddling or harbingers of deluded political correctness? It seems Muslims are political kryptonite – Democrats and Republicans want their money and votes, but no one wants to be associated with them publicly. How can we bridge this?

DEAN: First of all, it’s not true that nobody from the Democratic side wants to be associated with the Muslims. As you know we have two Muslim American Congressmen, and we have no Muslim American Republican Congressman.

There’s no question that the Republicans are charging us with being soft on terrorism.  They would do that anyway. The truth is though if you look at what the Republicans have done – it is essentially nothing. They don’t understand fundamentally how to defend the United States of America. Defending the United States of America is not just about having great troops and well-equipped troops, but it’s also about having a high moral purpose in the world, and the Republicans have forfeited that. I think it’s clear the Democratic Party is the party of inclusion. It’s clear that members of minority groups do much better when seeking elective office as Democrats than they do as Republicans.  Frankly the Democratic Party makes room for different types of people, and that’s not true of Republicans.

ALI: Specifically, the Democrats voted for the Iraq War, the Authorization to Use Military Force [AUMF], and Patriot Acts 1 and 2. Yet, Obama now appears to be strong on national security, but also offering diplomacy. How do [the Democrats] ensure national security without overstepping constitutional limits of the Executive Authority – as Bush has done -or being seen as “weak on terror?”

DEAN: First of all, Senator Obama has said we need to win in Afghanistan, that is a much graver threat to Americans than Iraq ever was. In order to do that, it can’t just be by force of arms. You can’t defeat a terrorist insurgency by force of arms. What you have to do is use arms, but you also have to make sure the economy is better, that people can send their children to school – both girls and boys- and in order to do that you have to build a nation.

Now, Bush pooh- pooh’d nation building when he was running for President, but then of course he kinda’ found when he grew up – a little – he found out that he had to in fact engage in nation building, and that’s what we’re going to have to do in Afghanistan. Not just a matter of having great troops, it’s the matter that in the long term [you are] making sure that we get rid of the terrorist threat by making sure it doesn’t get nurtured or spread in Afghanistan or Pakistan. And that takes brains as well as brawn.

ALI: As you’ve been following Pakistan, you know Asif Ali Zardari is now the President. Bush recently ordered an aggressive offensive inside Pakistan that left 20 people dead. Of course, this didn’t go well with the Pakistani public. Even Pakistani General Kiyani said this would not be tolerated. How can we deal with Pakistan as a partner in the “war on terror” without offending them, and also not exacerbating the Taliban problem? Can we create a harmonious relationship, or are we doomed to some volatility? This is going to be some tough terrain for the next President.

DEAN: I think we’re going to have some volatility. Somebody has got to deal with the terrorists. If it’s not going to be Pakistani government, then it’s going to have to be Americans and NATO. You can’t continue to allow terrorism to be in the Northwest Territories and threaten Afghanistan and NATO troops. So, we hope the Pakistanis regain control of those territories. But if they don’t, we’re not going to stand idly by as our troops are attacked.

ALI: Due to the Iraq war, the AUMF, the Bush regime, and the Bush doctrine, Muslim world opinion with regards to American foreign policy has soured. American popularity around the world is at its lowest ebb. How do we convince the Muslims that we are not their enemies; we are not bullies. How do we say, “Come work with us, come join us.” How do we regain that trust?

DEAN: The first thing we have to do is get out of Iraq. Senator Obama has a plan to do that. The difference between Senator Obama and Senator McCain on that issue is 98 years in Iraq. And I think if Senator Obama wins, we will be out of Iraq within 18 months after inauguration. And that will make things much, much better. Secondly, of course is to make a real effort to get peace in the Middle East between Israelis and Palestinians, which Bush has essentially ignored for 7 years. That needs to be taken seriously. And third, this is a two way street. We really do need Muslim governments not to be sympathetic with terrorists – and many of them are not – but they feel bullied by terrorism, and we have to help them stand up to terrorists.

WAJAHAT ALI is a Muslim American of Pakistani descent. He is a playwright, essayist, humorist, and Attorney at Law, whose work, “The Domestic Crusaders” is the first major play about Muslim Americans living in a post 9-11 America. His blog is at http://goatmilk.wordpress.com/. He can be reached at wajahatmali@gmail.com

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Wajahat Ali is a poet, playwright and essayist living in the Bay Area. His widely acclaimed work, The Domestic Crusaders, the first major play about Muslim-Americans was produced by Ishmael Reed. He can be reached at: wajahatmali@gmail.com