By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
The most impressive thing about Howard Dean, and what seems genuinely to distinguish him from his fellow candidates, is his ability to think in three dimensions, to connect disparate ideas and concepts and problems in a remarkably intelligent and compelling way. It’s a doctor’s way of thinking: puzzling things out. “That’s what the job is,” he explains a few months later, “that’s what physicians are inherently required to do in the course of their work . . . to accurately assess and analyze data, in order to reach a diagnosis and a plan of treatment.” To the extent that this process involves evaluating the reliability of information, the history of past outcomes and the availability of resources, it’s fair to say that doctors can acquire a certain amount of expertise in crucial elements of government during the regular course of their practice. (Dean was still a practicing physician, and was, in fact, in the middle of examining a patient, when he received word in August of 1991 that Vermont governor Richard Snelling had died suddenly, catapulting Dean, the part-time lieutenant governor, into the full-time post.)
To listen to someone passionately and clearly delineate the connections between social justice and fiscal soundness, say, or between the growth of middle-class populations with more to lose and reduced tolerance for violence and terrorism, is a downright exhilarating experience. It’s part of his appeal, the stimulating mental workout that Dean, when he’s at the top of his form, provides. And he is at the top of his form this evening, weaving seamlessly from topic to topic, and ‰ describing programs already in place in Vermont that apply these concepts to experiences of everyday life.
On the subject of crime and prisons, for instance, he points out that any competent kindergarten teacher can pretty much tell you the five kids in the class who are going to be in trouble later in life; early intervention, therefore, seems like a no-brainer. But how to do it? Vermont, in addition to its very sensible provision of free health coverage for everyone 18 and under, has a program in which every baby born in a Vermont hospital is paid a home visit by a social worker within two weeks of birth. In most cases, this is the end of it. In circumstances that seem to call for it, however, families are directed to child care, parenting classes, job training and the like.
Obviously, after only five years it’s too soon to gauge the results in terms of reducing crime or prison populations. But there is one statistic available: At an average annual cost of only $100 per child, Vermont has reduced reported child abuse by 43 percent since the program began. “And when you visit prisons,” says Dean, “you find the one thing almost everybody incarcerated has in common is that they were physically or mentally abused as children.”
Compared to the $27,000 a year it takes to maintain someone in prison, this seems like a promising way to approach a problem. And in fact, it’s not all that different from the way Dean and his strategists have approached a similarly intractable problem in the political realm. That is to say, given an incumbent president with unlimited campaign dollars, and competing Democratic candidates with more resources and greater name recognition than yours, you need to alter the conventional formulas for money and organization and troops on the ground, and to do it without spending too much cash up front. The major change Dean hopes to make in the political environment is to enlarge the electorate, and to do so by drawing from the vast, untapped reservoir of eligible voters (50 percent by some estimates) who either have never participated in politics or who are discouraged dropouts from the system.
This in itself is a fairly profound connection to have perceived — no other Democratic candidate has advanced any ideas at all, really, on ways to counter the enormous imbalance of resources that otherwise threatens to dominate the general election — and the interesting thing, even so far in advance of the election, is the possibility that this approach might actually succeed. In late June, at a rally for him at UCLA following his appearance at an environmental forum there — a rally that has been put together in two days by Bruins for Dean and, even with a last-minute time change, has managed to produce a gathering of 600 — Dean asks how many people in the crowd are newcomers to political participation, and about half the group, by no means all of them students, raise their hands.
The great majority of contributions that have come in over the Dean Web site are in amounts of $100 or less, indicating — and many of the voluminous blogs linked to the site confirm it — that they come from people who aren’t in the habit of giving to political campaigns. “I am black,” reads an entry accompanied by a thermometer graphic showing the progress of the blogger’s commitment to contribute $25 per pay period. “I am 28 years old. I am a college graduate and a single mother in Washington, D.C. According to stereotypes, statistics and polls I am not supposed to be interested in politics or our nation’s future [the Field Poll, for example, has identified the typical Dean supporter as a white, liberal man] . . . But I made a determination to get involved when I heard Bush refer to the millions of American citizens who protested the war as a ‘focus group’ and said he would not listen to them. Well, I intend to make sure he hears me loud and clear on Election Day . . . ”
Sleepless Summer Tour in Seattle,
August 24: Forty Thousand people in
six cities and more
than $1 million raised
Photo by John Pettit