Wednesday, August 06, 2003
Two vignettes stand out. In the early 1990s, Dean and Wright both hoped to implement universal health care in Vermont. Legislation they backed led to a study of two options: a single-payer scheme, like Canada's, and a heavily regulated system that relied on private companies. Dean's financing preference was to eliminate premiums and instead use state taxes to buy health care for all.
But when it became apparent that funding universal health care would require a large tax increase, backing began to evaporate. Wright scrambled to hold together legislative support, particularly for single-payer. On a flight to Washington for a fund-raiser, the former speaker writes, he asked Dean what he planned to do to save the health care plan. ''He barely looked up from his reading, and he nonchalantly answered: `Nothing, it's dead.'''
Now, acknowledging that its cost made universal health care, let alone single-payer system, politically impractical on a state level was probably a prudent judgment. But Wright, possessed of an ex-Marine's tenacity, was nevertheless shocked by the governor's quiet acquiescence. ''I guess this was the one thing I never could understand about Howard Dean,'' he notes. ''He always seemed so ready to abandon his cause at the first sign of defeat.... Maybe it was an unwillingness to have any cause at all, at least any cause for which he was willing to risk his political skin.''
He could be that way with people as well, Wright laments. After the reactionary Republican Senate, in a battle that pitted developers against environmentalists, voted to reject three qualified members of Vermont's Environmental Board, Dean sent the names back to the Senate for reappointment. But when they were again refused, rather than risk real political capital in a prolonged public battle, Dean backed down and declined to submit the names again. In so doing, the governor had abandoned three dedicated public servants, Wright contends.
''I don't think I've ever been more disappointed than I was at the moment,'' he writes.
The one place where Wright presents Dean as ready to fight involved not ideological principle but personal prerogative. The former speaker recalls the day that he encountered Dean, then the lieutenant governor, in his waiting room, furious at the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee because his office's budget had been cut. ''He's a no good son of a bitch. I swear, if it takes me a lifetime, I'll get the bastard,'' Dean said, according to Wright.
Ultimately, the Dean whom Wright limns is neither fighter nor firebrand but a pragmatic practitioner of the politics of the possible, one more committed to personal political success than to any particular issue.
The picture that emerges in my mind from these vignettes is a Kucinich/Nader-style liberal, Wright, who doesn't understand that governing from the center in the best interests of the electorate sometimes means knowing when to compromise. This is the essence of pragmatism - choosing to take one step forward rather than sitting still and pining for two. With Dean, we know that his pragmatism is principled pragmatism (an ideal I've been espousing on my own blog for almost 1.5 years, well before I'd ever heard of Dean). Wright's memoir however interprets Dean's pragmatism through the lens of his own disappointment and thus reaches the conclusion that it must be a personal failure. This is sad and pathetic and speaks of an ignorance about what role an executive has to play, as opposed to the role a legislator must play.
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Nation-Building was founded by Aziz Poonawalla in August 2002 under the name Dean Nation. Dean Nation was the very first weblog devoted to a presidential candidate, Howard Dean, and became the vanguard of the Dean netroot phenomenon, raising over $40,000 for the Dean campaign, pioneering the use of Meetup, and enjoying the attention of the campaign itself, with Joe Trippi a regular reader (and sometime commentor). Howard Dean himself even left a comment once. Dean Nation was a group weblog effort and counts among its alumni many of the progressive blogsphere's leading talent including Jerome Armstrong, Matthew Yglesias, and Ezra Klein. After the election in 2004, the blog refocused onto the theme of "purple politics", formally changing its name to Nation-Building in June 2006. The primary focus of the blog is on articulating purple-state policy at home and pragmatic liberal interventionism abroad.