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
Back at the Santa Monica house party, Dean brings up the matter — which is, needless to say, more than a little controversial in this crowd — of his stance on gun control. “I’m not a member of the NRA,” he says, “but I’ve got a 100 percent rating from them, and here’s why . . .” He explains that during his years in hunting-and-fishing Vermont, he’s come to believe that aside from the three national laws that ought to be allowed to stand — the Brady Bill, the assault-weapons ban, and mandatory gun-show checks — further gun regulation is an area best left to state and local governments. His reasoning is that there are such different cultures for and problems with weapons in different areas of the country that a one-size-fits-all policy isn’t practical.
Unspoken is the likelihood that this view will make several of his other positions — the need for greatly expanded national health insurance, his solidity on affirmative action — more palatable, even persuasive, in parts of the country and among voters who might otherwise be less receptive to them. Dean likes to say he feels perfectly comfortable talking to middle-aged white guys with gun racks and Confederate decals on their trucks, because their kids don’t have health insurance either. But the truth is, once a commonality has been established, other opinions, even when they widely differ from your own, tend to seem more legitimate. (In Vermont, Dean explains on another occasion, he’s been able to rope the NRA into helping with land preservation: “They understand that if there’s no habitat, they can’t hunt.”) And that reasoning, which is not exactly unknown to the business dealings of many of the people in the room, seems to resonate quietly, and to calm them.
Another area in which Dean’s regular-guy persona has proved useful — and he does have a true knack for presenting radical ideas as if they were just plain common sense — has been the fallout from Vermont’s Civil Unions Act, the legislation required by the state Supreme Court’s 1999ruling that gay couples are entitled to the same benefits as married heterosexuals. As governor, Dean signed the law in April of 2000 (although with insufficient ceremony in the view of some of its advocates), and he talks with a certain obligatory piousness about his decision to do so, given the fact that the measure could have gone into effect without his signature — how, knowing it was a risk, he went ahead anyway: What is the point of politics if you can’t occasionally take a chance on something worthwhile? But in reality, what probably turned the tide of public opinion was the matter-of-fact emphasis on garden-variety civil rights with which he continues to discuss the need for the legislation, pointing out the discrimination imposed by tax codes and inheritance laws, the absurdity of hospital regulations permitting decisions about care from one’s sister or aunt but not one’s partner, and so on, until he has made the conditions that prevailed before its passage seem virtually un-American.
For all the misgivings about his credibility on national security, a similarly brisk, no-nonsense skepticism is what has marked Dean’s comments about the war. Despite repeated portrayals of him as an obstreperous, angry peacenik, his opposition from the start was specific and sober, expressed as distrust of the hasty rush to military action and a call for a more measured weighing of factors. His discussions of domestic security feature a similar flinty exasperation at the inefficiency of its implementation: the still essentially unfunded Homeland Security mandate, the vulnerability of the ports, the shortage of emergency personnel produced by the combination of military reserve duty and state budget deficits. His on-the-ground experience as a governor, he maintains, not only in designing programs but in putting them into effect, and evaluating them later for fiscal realities and unintended consequences, makes him better qualified than most of the other Democratic candidates for that aspect of the presidency composed essentially of mammoth administrative endeavor.
Dean has spoken without notes, on this evening in March, for nearly an hour, and before taking questions, which he does genially for another 45 minutes, he tells a story, apropos the subject of affirmative action, that illustrates a key moment in his own personal connecting of the dots. (The lead-up to the Supreme Court decision on the University of Michigan’s admissions policies is still under way; Dean, with more vehemence than he’s brought to almost any subject tonight, has called Bush’s use of the word “quota” in reference to the case “revolting.”) Vermont’s judiciary is now almost 50 percent women, but when he first took office, Dean tells the group, the number was much lower. Although he was theoretically disposed toward appointing women judges, he discovered that, as recommendation cycles came and went, there were very few women on the lists of potential appointees. His chief of staff, on the other hand, is a woman; under Vermont law, she was in charge of all the hiring and firing of personnel for the governor’s office, and by the time a couple of years had passed, Dean says, the office had become “pretty much the definition of a matriarchy.” When the next vacancy occurred, he suggested that for the sake of diversity it might be a good idea to hire a ‰ man. His chief of staff agreed, then came in to talk to him about it a few days later, looking troubled. “‘Governor,’ she said, ‘there are just so few qualified men out there . . .’”