August 17, 2003

August 17, 2003 | Commentary on

Just What Kind of Doctor?

Former Vermont governor and Democratic presidential aspirant Howard Dean "is no left-wing radical," writes Jonathan Cohn in The New Republic. The Washington Post agrees and recently published an extensive survey of what it called "the centrist course he steered during his tenure as governor of Vermont." Dean himself insists he swims in the political mainstream, telling Larry King: "There's nothing that's not centrist about me."

Yet centrists familiar with the doctor's record beg to differ. The Democratic Leadership Council, for example, issued the policy equivalent of a fatwa on Dean, describing his brand of politics as "defined principally by weakness abroad and elitist, interest-group liberalism at home." Ouch.

Given Dean's recent surge to the top tier of Democratic presidential candidates, it's a good time to evaluate his record as governor and speculate as to what sort of president he would make should lightning strike on Election Day 2004.

One useful resource comes from the libertarian Cato Institute, which publishes biannual report cards for the tax and fiscal policies of the nation's governors. A review of these studies dating back to the early 1990s indicates that Dean initially impressed even the hardened skeptics at Cato with his fiscal stinginess. They found that Vermont's general fund spending increased by just 9.8 percent during his first five years in office and that only five states had lower expenditure growth over that period. Though tempered by his willingness to increase various state taxes, this fiscal record nevertheless earned Dean several Bs on Cato's report cards during the mid-1990s, placing him ahead of such Republican contemporaries as Michigan Gov. John Engler, Wisconsin's Tommy Thompson, Pennsylvania's Tom Ridge and, yes, Texas Gov. George W. Bush.

But Dean's propensity to raise taxes caused his ratings to drop after that - to a C in 1998 and 2000 and then to a woeful D in last year's edition. Dean's tax-raising promiscuity - he raised taxes on nearly everything, including gasoline, real estate, corporations, individual incomes, tobacco and items subject to the state sales tax - led to an annual tax increase of $2,350 on the average Vermont household from 1990 to 2001 (even after taking population growth and inflation into account). Dean thus qualified for the nation's second worst record on taxes during the 1990s. And, according to tax-cut advocate Grover Norquist, state spending rose so much more quickly than family incomes during Dean's tenure that the average Vermont taxpayer had to work two additional weeks each year just to pay for the governor's new spending.

Despite this, Dean may still qualify as a centrist - at least by Vermont standards. But now that he wants to be president, we need to know: Has he moved further left to appeal to the liberal core of voters who often dominate Democratic primaries? Or has he migrated toward the political middle, laying claim to the "centrist" moniker in an effort to broaden his appeal?

A tax-happy platform

In fact, Dean appears centrist more in name than in deed. A close look at his platform reveals overt and reckless radicalism alongside a surprising restraint in his willingness to expand the size, though not the scope, of government power.

On the one hand, Dean displays an almost frightening disregard for the negative effects of higher taxes on our economy. He has called for the complete elimination of the Bush tax cuts, which would increase our tax burden by hundreds of billions of dollars per year, and for steps to "assure that Social Security and Medicare are adequately funded to meet the needs of the next generation" of seniors. Given Dean's opposition to permitting workers to steer a portion of their Social Security payroll taxes into personal accounts, the only way to "adequately fund" these gigantic programs is either to slash benefits or dramatically increase the payroll taxes that fund them. Of course, any jump in the payroll tax would only exacerbate the negative effects of the other tax hikes Dean advocates.

When it comes to the actual expenditure of funds, the size of government, Dean is more circumspect. His proposal to create a $90 billion per-year program to extend health coverage to more workers stands out among the policy proposals on his Web site for its specificity and cost. Otherwise, Dean more often than not resists the temptation to propose new programs or expand existing ones.

It is in expanding the scope of government indirectly through regulatory mandates on the private sector that Dean struts his liberal feathers most shamelessly. Whether it's requiring U.S. businesses to abide by the Kyoto treaty on global warming, raising the minimum wage, saddling firms with "tough" new workplace regulations, imposing demanding fuel economy and energy efficiency standards on automakers, or simply appointing legions of activist judges to interpret federal law to do this and much more, Dean sees virtually no limit to what government can and should do for (and to) you.

The dirty little secret that Dean surely wants to hide from his supporters is that the modern Democratic Party is so liberal that Dean's platform differs from those of his primary competitors only at the margins.

The phony moderates

Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, who also covets a "moderate" label, peppers his Web site with endless recommendations for new or expanded federal programs, whether it is untold billions to "protect our rural way of life," more funding for teacher salaries, or a massive new prescription-drug program for seniors.

Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri, pining for the support of organized labor, outflanks Dean on the left with his $212 billion per year proposal to provide every American with health coverage. Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts has yet to encounter an area of policymaking that doesn't cry out for more federal support - education, child care, highways, mass transit systems and fiscal bailouts for the states. Even the centrists' golden boy, Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, wants to send $150 billion to a new "American Center for Cures" to "complement" all the medical research under way at the National Institutes of Health.

Dean, like most of the major Democratic candidates, is talking the centrist talk but offering up generous servings of liberal policy prescriptions - which shows, of course, that the liberals still hold the policy high ground within the party. In fact, the real competition for the hearts and minds of Democratic primary voters lies outside the policy arena and probably will be determined by intangible factors such as the candidate's ability to critique President Bush's record and connect emotionally and psychologically with the Democratic voter base.

Though he looks and dresses like an FBI agent, Howard Dean embodies all of the liberalism and emotional intensity of the modern Democratic Party activist.

This bodes well for him remaining a top-tier candidate for many months to come.

Michael Franc is Vice President of Government Relations at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Michael Franc Distinguished Fellow
Government Studies