Commentary

Dean’s Defective Label-Maker

This article originally appeared in the Washington Times on February 26, 2004.
“We will not quit now or ever,” said Howard Dean after the Iowa caucuses. He initially repeated that message after getting another pathetic 18 percent vote in Wisconsin, then he quickly redefined the meaning of “quit.” He will quit running for president, but will not quit soliciting contributions on behalf of some “movement” that remains undefined, except as a personal ego trip.

Mr. Dean uses political labels with abandon, except when it comes to himself. He refers to President Bush as a “dangerous radical” with a “right-wing agenda.” It follows he does not consider himself radical or right-wing. But neither will he acknowledge being even slightly liberal or left. When he says he represents “the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party,” however, his fans do not appear to take that to mean the center.

Mr. Dean prefers to market himself as a “fiscal conservative.” Fiscal conservative has come to mean someone eager to raise taxes frequently and aggressively to finance any and all spending schemes. Whenever there is a choice to be made between more money for taxpayers or more money for government agencies, Mr. Dean can be counted on to claim it is “right” and “fair” to favor those feeding at the government trough. He complains “wealth is taxed less” than labor, yet he advocates higher taxes on labor, too.

If questioned about his unlimited affection for the Internal Revenue Service, this populist patrician claims to “stand up for what is right and not what is popular.” This is a typically arrogant comment (as if he alone knows what is right), and one that is profoundly elitist (as if popular opinion must be stupid).

The closest Mr. Dean ever came to offering a concrete policy platform was a slim pamphlet that stole Tom Paine’s title, “Common Sense,” to defend what Paine opposed — namely, omnipotent government. Mr. Dean’s version expands on past promises to put a chicken in every pot: “Health insurance, prescription drugs and higher education can be… affordable for everyone.” Cadillacs and caviar can also be affordable for everyone, but only if taxpayers want to subsidize them.

Mr. Dean began his concession speech by saying his goal had been to make America more like Vermont. That is, he would have liked to see everyone poorer and more horribly overtaxed. In 2002, Vermont’s per capita income was below the national average at only $29,567, compared with $34,334 in New Hampshire. Vermont incomes look even worse after taxes. Vermont’s income tax ranges from 3.6 percent to 9.5 percent, with a 7.2 percent tax on taxable income above $27,950. New Hampshire doesn’t tax individual income at all, aside from a 5 percent tax on interest and dividends. Vermont has a 5 percent sales tax, New Hampshire has none.

In reality, Mr. Dean ran for nothing. He seemed to run against “special interests,” while courting the endorsements of government employee unions. And he ran against the establishment, while soliciting the endorsement of Al Gore. In the end, however, he simply ran against the president. And he lost, even within his own party.

“The bottom line is that we must beat George W. Bush in November, whatever it takes.” Mr. Dean’s constant incantation about “changing America” meant changing the man who sits in the Oval Office. And his theme of “taking the country back,” as New York Times writer Matt Bai wisely noted, “seemed another way of saying it was basically about winning.” Or about whining.

With Howard Dean hoping to be viewed as fiscally conservative, left-wing populist, political labels have clearly become very confusing. Seeking clarification, I turned to Joe Conason’s highly unrecommended book, “Big Lies: The Right-Wing Propaganda Machine and How it Distorts the Truth.” Mr. Conason’s bizarre complaint is that “liberal opinion is hard to find in conservative newspapers and … on conservative talk radio.” Liberal “underdogs” merely dominate the largest newspapers, all TV networks and public radio.

“The most basic liberal values,” according to Mr. Conason, “are political equality and economic opportunity.” Yet the Dean campaign seemed to have that backward, talking only about political opportunity and economic equality.

I’m not sure we can still make much sense out of such malleable words as liberal and conservative. A continuum from left to right, on the other hand, still retains a relatively concrete meaning.

Historically, distinctions between left and right first had to do with the distinction between royalty and revolutionaries after the French Revolution. The 1789 French National Assembly seated the revolutionaries (the Third Estate) on the left side of the chamber and the First Estate nobles on the right. But the French revolutionaries were violent thugs and thieves, and their regime ended with Napoleonic dictatorship. So this “revolution” just turned out to be just another contest over who would hold oppressive government power, not about whether such power should be severely restrained.

Later, because another gang of thugs seized power in Russia, the distinction between left and right came to indicate a person’s degree of enthusiasm about having the government run the economy. Those who thought the government should plan and run almost everything — deciding who would be compelled to produce what for whom — were called communists. Those who thought the government should make most but not all economic decisions were called socialists, national socialists or fascists.

In the United States, unlike Europe, those who would settle for government controlling about half the economy began to call themselves “liberals.” This was, of course, the opposite of what “liberal” meant in the time of Jefferson or Paine.

History aside, to be on the political left today means wanting to tilt the balance of power and money away from individuals and toward the largest possible central government. To be on the right means favoring a tilt in the balance of power and money toward individual responsibility as a first choice, decentralized and frugal government as a second choice and the central government only when essential (such as national defense). Not everyone is completely consistent, of course, but socialists are consistently left and libertarians are consistently right.

Whatever labels he puts on others, Mr. Dean clearly leans rather sharply to the left. The U.S. electorate does not. Howard Dean’s political implosion shows those “ordinary Americans” he talks about so condescendingly have a lot more common sense than he ever did.

Alan Reynolds is a senior fellow with the Cato Institute and a nationally syndicated columnist.