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It's easy to see why so many people are jazzed about Howard Dean. Inside Jeffrey Sanker's high-rise condo, the only thing more striking than the view of the Beach's southern tip was Dean's command of the room. About 50 people gathered in a semicircle facing him as he laid into all things Dubya. "This president has the same economic policy as Argentina: borrow and spend, borrow and spend," he said to knowing laughter before moving on to the issue dear to this crowd's heart: the gay "civil union" bill he signed into law six months before running for re-election in 2000.
"When I signed that bill, 60 percent of the state was against it," he explained. "But I knew that if I was willing to sell out the rights of a whole group of people, just to get elected, then I was wasting my time in public service. I spent the next few weeks talking to a whole lot of pissed-off people around the state, but I won by the same margin as my last election, and against a better-financed opponent."
The key, he concluded, is to do what's right and "stick to your guns." People respect someone who's very clear about his beliefs, even if they personally disagree. And though the 54-year-old, self-described WASP isn't shy about his patrician roots -- Park Avenue-raised and Yale-educated before ditching Wall Street for medical school and a private practice in Vermont -- he avowed that "equal rights are for everyone, not just your friends and the people you play golf with."
It was a bravura performance, full of confidence and singular in its contrast to the effete manner most associate with modern-day liberalism. Little wonder, then, that more than a few wags have begun calling Dean the West Wing candidate, seeing him as that television show's fictional president come to life: a former New England governor with both gravitas and a liberal heart.
"For a Democrat, his delivery is unusually forceful, his body language almost cocksure," wrote William Powers in The National Journal. "Next to the rest of the Democratic field, who tend toward a soft-and-squishy rhetorical style, he can seem refreshingly robust."
Yet for all his fire-breathing attacks on Republicanism, Dean is an old-school fiscal conservative. "You cannot have social justice without a balanced budget," he declared at Sanker's, and his record as governor is a testament to that conviction. "For his entire term, the left wing of our party called him a Republican," recounted Vermont Democratic business leader Harlan Sylvester to the Wall Street Journal, citing Dean's refusal to abolish spending caps -- even cutting taxes during the late-Nineties revenue boom while liberals were howling for further social expenditures.
That same iconoclasm extends to foreign policy. While the "no blood for oil" camp may love his pronouncements on Iraq, they'll be less cheered by his take on the Palestinian peace process. He has little patience for the "blame Israel" school of thought common to most leftists.
After Dean finished speaking at Sanker's condo, a grizzled, fiftyish fellow stepped forward and delivered a harangue about the Israeli government. After a dramatic pause, he growled at Dean: "Your wife is Jewish. So I want to know -- are you with Likud or are you with the Jewish Labor Party?"
The room fell silent, jarred by the anti-Semitic tone. But as worried glances were exchanged, Dean didn't miss a beat. "Well, I'm not an Israeli citizen, so neither," he quipped to relieved laughter. Most aspirants for higher office would gamely move on, but Dean wasn't finished. He added that, like Bush, he'd refuse to talk to PLO leader Yasser Arafat. And he supported the Israeli army's construction of a "security fence" physically dividing Palestinian communities on the West Bank from Israel proper. He's convinced it's the best way to isolate extremists and move forward to a two-state solution. It was a Likudnik position offered up to a largely peacenik crowd. Not exactly a typical political tactic. But then Dean is hardly a typical politician.
Sitting with Kulchur afterward, Dean was still visibly pumped. Waves of energy seemed to ripple off him. The subject of his self-comparisons to Eugene McCarthy sparked him to practically leap out of his chair. "I said that once," he grimaced with a shake of his head. "Thanks to Lexis-Nexis" -- a sprawling news database -- "everybody reads it and repeats it!" But he wasn't about to stop glorying in his outsider status. When Kulchur suggested that the Democrat he may most resemble is George McGovern, Dean immediately flipped the equation.
"I think I'm the only Democrat who can beat George Bush," he countered firmly. "People don't like this president because of his policies. People like him because he has a clear message and he knows exactly who he is. Bill Clinton said the American people will always vote for someone who is strong and wrong before they will vote for someone who is weak and right. Most Democrats will say anything to get elected ... and that's why we lose."
On the matter of "strong and wrong," Kulchur returned to Dean's opposition to the war in Iraq. In lieu of unilateral force, Dean has spoken of Clintonian "constructive engagement." He foresees a "Marshall Plan" for the Middle East as the best way to combat radical Islamists: massive economic programs to help build vibrant middle classes throughout the region, which in turn would foster currents of democracy. It's a nice idea but it seems like little more than wishful thinking, particularly when Dean told Kulchur that Jordan is proof of this notion's merit.