A case of "a "poor" choice of words" or something more? Is this really the time to have an "evolving position on the Middle East"?
Rivals Target Dean's Blunt Comments
Unscripted Remarks On Key Issues Seen As Big Liabilities
By Jim VandeHei - Washington Post Staff Writer - Thursday, October 2, 2003
Presidential candidate Howard Dean has excelled throughout his political career by speaking bluntly, usually unscripted, about the problems facing the country. Now, his words are coming back to haunt him on the campaign trail.
Dean's rivals and some Democratic strategists see the former Vermont governor's comments past and present as among his biggest liabilities. Sens. John F. Kerry (Mass.) and Joseph I. Lieberman (Conn.) and Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (Mo.) are turning Dean's words against him almost daily, calling into question his commitment to Democratic causes such as Medicare and the Middle East, and portraying him as a flip-flopper on other issues. Since running for president, Dean has switched his position on at least three politically sensitive topics: Social Security, free trade and the Cuba trade embargo. In all three cases, his new position comports with the views of the key voters he is courting.
"Howard Dean has tried to reinvent his record on a lot of issues in this campaign because time after time . . . he is on the wrong side of seniors and working families
," Kerry said recently.
If the charges stick, they could undermine Dean's appeal as the political outsider willing to tell it like it is, strategists said.
"He'd have to go a long way to alienate" his committed supporters, many of whom are new to politics, said Democratic strategist Joe Lockhart, a former spokesman for President Bill Clinton. "The problem for him is he can't win with just those people. He needs some of the people who regularly participate in the process. Those people still have reservations, and this back-and-forth plays into those reservations."
From debates to television interviews, Dean's words are becoming an unwelcome distraction for his campaign. On CBS's "Face the Nation" last weekend, Dean spent most of his time fending off attacks generated by other candidates over Social Security, Medicare and trade. "I have changed on some of the issues," Dean said. "That's one of the hallmarks of who I am: I am a doctor; I believe that if you have a theory and a fact comes along that changes the theory, then you throw out the theory." Dean faced similar scrutiny in last week's debate in New York, prompting the Vermont Democrat to caution his opponents that Bush, not he, is the "enemy" in this campaign.
Weeks of relentless pounding are showing few signs of eroding Dean's support among Democratic voters. Recent polls show Dean leading in New Hampshire and Iowa, two key early testing grounds. Dean is also on pace to raise more than twice, and perhaps three times, as much as his nearest rivals this quarter and is continuing to draw easily the largest crowds of all the candidates.
Joe Trippi, Dean's campaign manager, said the criticism is backfiring, as supporters and donors rally around the Vermont Democrat after each personal attack. Dean's advisers, however, noted that if Gephardt and the others spend millions of dollars on ads focused on these issues, they anticipate Dean's poll numbers will drop. Trippi said the trick now is to communicate Dean's positions clearly amid the onslaught.
Dean's comments over the past decade show that, perhaps more than any other candidate in the field, he has switched or modified key positions as a presidential contender. Because he rarely speaks from scripts, he also tends to make more off-the-cuff statements that land him in hot water. Kerry recently said Dean makes way too many verbal "gaffes" to be president.
Dean is getting hit the hardest over Medicare. Gephardt and others have accused Dean of siding with then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) in the 1995 fight to slow the growth of Medicare from 10 percent to 7 percent. Dean last weekend said the charge is false, but it is not.
Although Dean never explicitly said he was siding with Gingrich, he did endorse a GOP proposal, backed by the then-speaker, to slow Medicare's growth. He told a Vermont newspaper in 1995 that he could "fully subscribe" to slowing the rate of the program's growth to 7 percent, which would have been tantamount to cutting Medicare spending.
Dean is trying to blur the issue by saying he sided with Clinton in the fight because Clinton eventually signed a bill, in 1997, trimming Medicare's growth. But that bill scaled back the growth by $115 billion over five years, compared with the $270 billion over seven years that Dean had advocated. In 1995, Clinton opposed the plan endorsed by Dean. Jeremy Ben-Ami, Dean's policy adviser, said Dean was not alone among Democrats backing changes to Medicare in 1995, but that was a minority view in the party.
On Social Security, Gephardt and others have criticized Dean for saying in the 1990s that he wanted to raise the program's retirement age to 70, and, as recently as June, he said he would "entertain" lifting it to 68. Since then, Dean has switched his position and now opposes any change in the age at which one can receive full retirement benefits. Under current law, the retirement age varies from 65 years and two months to 67, depending on when one was born.
On trade, Dean is getting hit by Gephardt for expressing too much support for free trade and by Kerry for not expressing enough. Gephardt is seizing on Dean's verbal support in the 1990s for the North American Free Trade Agreement and for allowing China into the World Trade Organization, which broke down trade barriers for China. Dean now wants to renegotiate NAFTA and to demand stiffer labor standards, and he frequently condemns China's trade practices.
Kerry has hit Dean for suggesting the United States should demand that its trading partners meet U.S. environmental and labor standards, which would dramatically curtail foreign trade because most nations could not meet them. Dean has since backtracked and has said other nations should "eventually" meet U.S. standards, but he has not stated how quickly. "He's an impatient person," Ben-Ami said. "He tends to talk about [forcing countries to adopt U.S. labor standards] as soon as possible, rather than being a matter of decades."
Dean's advisers said the candidate sometimes get himself in trouble by choosing the wrong words. They said his evolving position on the Middle East is a perfect example.
On the Middle East, Kerry and Lieberman have accused Dean of sending mixed signals regarding the peace talks. He has. Dean told a New Mexico audience several weeks ago that the United States should not pick sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. When asked a few days later by The Washington Post if he stood by his comment, Dean backtracked, saying the United States should pursue an "even-handed" approach.
Soon after, under pressure from the Jewish community, an influential Democratic constituency that considers the use of phrases such as "even-handed" as a softening of the U.S. government's pro-Israel stance, Dean emphasized that his Middle East policies would be no different from Clinton's.
Dean also generated controversy by calling the suicide bombers of the Islamic Resistance Movement, or Hamas, soldiers, not terrorists, and by suggesting that Israel should dismantle the "enormous" number of Jewish settlements in the West Bank. He has since said negotiators should decide the settlement issue.
In all four issues, Dean aides chalked up the miscommunication to a "poor" choice of words.
We need a leader who is strong on his positions, strong on the issues and who thinks before he speaks. We need John Kerry!