Interview with Tavis Smiley
January 28, 2003
HEADLINE: Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean discusses his emphases on health care and a balanced budget
TAVIS SMILEY, host: From NPR in Los Angeles, I'm Tavis Smiley.
On today's program, actress Rene Russo talks about saving Mother Nature one tree at a time. Also, Black Enterprise founder Earl Graves says his money is where his mouth is when it comes to Richard Parsons, AOL Time Warner's chairman and CEO. And I'll sit down with the talented Ben Vereen.
But first, we continue our series of discussions with announced candidates for president of the United States. Yesterday we spoke with Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman. Today, physician and former Democratic Vermont Governor Howard Dean. A self-described commonsense moderate, Dean signed a law legalizing civil unions for gays, but also has the stamp of approval from the National Rifle Association for his opposition to strong federal gun control. I began by asking the Ivy League-educated former governor why he wanted to run for president instead of going back to practicing medicine.
Dr. HOWARD DEAN (Democrat, 2004 Presidential Candidate): Tavis, I think the country is fundamentally going in the wrong direction. You know, the president has run up a $350 billion deficit. We can't afford that. He keeps wanting to cut taxes more and more and make the deficit bigger and bigger. The problem with that is it means we are never going to do anything for seniors and their prescription benefits. We're never going to be able to do anything like fund special education so people's property taxes could maybe go down or we'd get more teachers and better-paid teachers. The president is borrowing money from seniors to pay tax cuts to people who don't need them, and he's borrowing money from our children so he can give tax cuts to people who don't need them. I think it's a very, very bad and dangerous direction for this country to be going in.
SMILEY: Vermont, of course, is a gorgeous state, but a small state, not one that allows you necessarily to have a national platform, so your name identity is not that of others in this race. And so you're running behind most Democrats at the moment in the polls. Most think your campaign is a long shot. How are you going to turn that around?
Dr. DEAN: I don't think it's a long shot. I'm the only person running for president that's ever balanced a budget. I'm the only person running for president that's delivered health insurance. Everybody in our state under 18 has health insurance. We can have health insurance for every American if we do it the smart way, the way we've done it in Vermont: not to have the government run it, but simply to help people like small businesses and help kids get health insurance. I have a platform that matters. I'm not interested in running this race so that I can get elected by saying anything anybody wants to hear. I'm going to say exactly what I think people need to hear. People are going to know exactly where I stand on every issue. And I think there's enormous hunger in the Democratic Party for some leadership like that, and as a governor and as a doctor, I have an ability to do that, I think.
SMILEY: As governor, you allowed passage of the first law in the nation allowing civil unions for gays and lesbians--quite controversial in certain quarters of this country. Are you concerned at all, Governor Dean, that America may not be ready for a president with an agenda that is so progressive?
Dr. DEAN: I don't see equal rights for all Americans being all that progressive. The right-wingers will call this gay marriage and all that stuff, which it's not. Our law says marriage is between a man and a woman. But it also says that gays and lesbians have equal rights, same as everybody else. This is an issue that I think the president is horribly deficient on. The president has taken us back a generation in race relations. I was totally shocked when the president of the United States said in a national speech that the University of Michigan used quotas. 'Quotas' is a racially charged buzzword that appeals to latent racism among white people who are afraid that they're going to lose their jobs because some person of color is going to get a position in a law school or a job.
For the president of the United States to use the word 'quotas' in a national speech when he knows very well that the University of Michigan does not now and has never had quotas, I think, is emblematic of what the Republican Party does in this country. They divide us by race. They divide us by sexual preference. They divide us by anything to avoid talking about the bottom-line issues, which I think are balancing the budget, health care and making sure we have a decent education.
I was horrified. The combination of that and the nomination of Charles Pickering, who was rejected once before because of his racial views, I think, has sent the message to Latino and African-American and immigrant people in this country that 'We want fewer of you in medical schools and law schools and the best colleges of this state.' I cannot imagine anything more destructive that this president could have done.
SMILEY: Governor, you just suggested that the president and the Republican Party of late are sending mixed messages on race. Where do you stand specifically on affirmative action, and what would you do to advance the conversation about race in this country?
Dr. DEAN: First of all, I think you have to talk about race. For the president to use the word 'quotas' is the way the Republicans always talk about race. They appeal to people's worst instincts, and then they run around and pretend that there's nothing really racial about what they're talking about. Let's talk about race. Race is a tough issue in this country. Diversity is critical. We don't have a majority population in California anymore. There's a series of minorities. There's African-Americans, there's Latinos, there's Caucasians--a series of minorities. The whole country is going to be a series of minorities halfway through this century. We have got to get beyond this notion that we're going to subtly appeal to each other's fears about each other and start talking bluntly about why we ought to celebrate each other's differences and the things that each one of us can bring to America, no matter what group that we come from. And the president of the United States--for him to delve back into the 1950s, appealing subtly to white fears, I think, was the greatest disservice in his presidency.
SMILEY: When it comes to gun control, Governor Dean, you don't fall in lockstep or in line with most other Democrats. Tell me why you oppose strict gun-control measures.
Dr. DEAN: I come from a very rural state, Tavis. Our homicide rate was five per year one year; the most we ever had when I was governor was 25. We have no gun control, pretty much, of any kind in Vermont. Now I think that you may need gun control in New York and Los Angeles or Washington, DC, and my attitude is, have as much as you want. But don't tell Vermont and Wyoming that they need gun control. Here's what my position is and what it would be as president. Keep the assault weapons ban. I favor that and it ought to be renewed. Keep the Brady bill, close the gun-show loophole, and then let every state decide for themselves what additional gun control they need.
SMILEY: Let me turn your attention for a moment, Governor, to the notion of foreign policy; the country on the brink of war with Iraq. Do you see a way to avoid war and at the same time ensure that Saddam Hussein doesn't have weapons of mass destruction?
Dr. DEAN: I do, and I think after the president began to listen to Secretary Powell instead of the more conservative members of his administration, things began to go right in Iraq. I think the notion of getting the Security Council to support the disarming of Saddam Hussein was the right notion, and that was a good thing to do. I think that making it clear to Saddam Hussein that inspectors are going to go back in and going to be able to have a free hand and find evidence is the right thing to do. But I prefer a diplomatic solution, and I think we can get to a diplomatic solution.
I think the problem--one of the problems with Iraq is that that is not the biggest threat. The biggest threat is al-Qaeda. Bob Graham, a senator from Florida who I admire greatly, voted no on the Iraq resolution because he did not believe it was addressing the real problem, which was Hezbollah, al-Qaeda, Hamas. These are groups that really do threaten America. Saddam Hussein is not at this time a threat to America. The president has never made the case that he's a threat to America, and it's beyond me why we have 250,000 troops over there when we're not paying the kind of attention to security at home and the intelligence agencies and improving those agencies, particularly the FBI, that we ought to be paying.
SMILEY: Are Democrats in Congress showing any independence when it comes to Iraq?
Dr. DEAN: Tavis, here's what bothers me about this whole thing. I'm the only--first of all, I'm the only candidate for president that's a governor that's actually balanced a budget or delivered health care, but I'm also the only candidate for president that's said they would not support the president's Iraq resolution. But if you give somebody a choice between voting for somebody who believes in what they're doing and voting for somebody who appears to be taking positions based on polls and will say what they have to say to win, they're going to choose the person who believes in themselves every single time, and they're going to give you some slack on policy. So what I want to do is run the kind of candidacy that, perhaps, John McCain would have run, which is to talk about issues bluntly and plainly, and have a different policy alternative for the people of this country to vote for.
SMILEY: And yet you see that John McCain is in the Senate and not in the White House.
Dr. DEAN: Yeah, but John McCain had some other problems that didn't have anything to do with whether he won or not. He had some money problems. He was also a senator. He hadn't actually had the opportunity to balance budgets and deliver services, which I have.
SMILEY: How is your money? How's your fund raising?
Dr. DEAN: Well, we just started, really. I just hired a full-time fund-raising director this month, and I guess we'll find out over the next six or eight months or so.
SMILEY: Let me stay with this conversation for a moment here about the Democratic Party, because your comments kind of mirror those of one William Jefferson Clinton who, after the Democrats lost their shirts in the '02 elections, said, as I recall, when speaking to the DLC, the Democratic Leadership Council, that 'It is better to be strong and wrong that weak and right.' I guess the question is, your analysis notwithstanding: Can the Democrats do that? Can the Democrats sell? Do they have anything that they are for, as opposed to being against everything?
Dr. DEAN: Here's what I'll do if I'm president, and you make up your own mind about what the answer to that question is. I want a balanced budget. I want a tax policy that rewards middle-class and working people, not only contributors to the president's campaign. I want health insurance for all Americans in a system that does not change everything and have the government run it; it simply expands the present system to cover everybody, the way we've done in Vermont. I want investment in early childhood. I want a strong defense policy and a strong military, but I want a diplomatic policy that relies on cooperating with other countries instead of confronting them and going it alone at all times. That's my vision for what America should look like.
But most importantly, what my vision is--I want a philosophy of government that says we are responsible for and to each other as a people, that we are working together in this and that we will not pit groups against each other based on our ethnic differences, our racial differences, our religious differences. That's what this president did when he talked about his position on the University of Michigan, when he renominated Charles Pickering. We have got to get away from those racial code words and start building a society where we're all respected for who we are.
SMILEY: Maybe it's too early to ask; I do not know, so I won't ask you about names, per se, but any thoughts of the kind of person, should you become the Democratic nominee, that you'd like to have as a running mate--the kind of person?
Dr. DEAN: It is too early to ask, and, you know, as you said, Tavis, right now I'm at 4 percent, although the top guy's only about 8 points ahead of me, so none of us are--you know, we all have a long way to go. But, you know, to consider choices for vice president before you've gotten pretty close to the nomination is probably a mistake. What I'm definitely going to do is pick somebody who can help negotiate the shoals in Washington. I think the mistake that governors have made in the past when they've gotten to Washington is that they think Washington works the way the state capital does, and it doesn't.
Dr. DEAN: Governors have a much more dominant role in their state capital than the president does in Washington, and that's something you have to consider.
SMILEY: Howard Dean is seeking the Democratic nomination for president in 2004, and has served as governor of Vermont for three terms.
Governor, thank you for your time and the conversation. I appreciate. All the best to you.
Dr. DEAN: Great to talk to you.
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