Friday, July 18, 2003
by Wayne Besen
Former Vermont governor Howard Dean's surprising online fundraising prowess has catapulted him to the front of the Democratic pack to take on George W. Bush. Much of the Dean mania comes from his passionate GLBT supporters. Unfortunately, jumping on Dean's deeply flawed bandwagon may be a catastrophic mistake that will cost the GLBT community. Howard Dean is not a miracle, but a mirage - albeit not for the reason most often cited.
The most frequent rationale for calling Dean toast against Bush is Dean's perceived ultra-liberalism. He is sometimes unfairly compared to the failed presidential nominee George McGovern who lost 49 states. The reality, however, is that Dean's record as Vermont's governor is not so liberal. He is a buddy of the NRA, he cut taxes, and even reformed welfare. And Dean's anti-war stance seems less of a liability, as body bags filled with American soldiers become regular fare on the evening news.
No, the problem with Dean is not policy, but personality. Dean seems unable to control his emotions or his mouth on the campaign trail or in presidential primary debates. His defenders say this so-called outspokenness is refreshing. But the truth is, it is more alarming than charming.
At times, Dean seems to suffer from logorrhea - which is defined as the inability to shut up. He has had to offer apologies at least five times in recent months for either reckless statements or for insulting fellow democratic presidential nominees.
"Howard's a pop-off," Garrison Nelson, a University of Vermont political science professor, recently told the Boston Globe. "Howard pops off when he gets challenged. At some point you run out of apologies."
Surely, it is admirable on occasion for a politician to admit he or she is wrong. Dean's handlers are spinning these missteps by saying he is not "programmed" and that he is speaking his mind. But if speaking his mind consists of frequent, habitually mindless statements, what does this say about the candidate? If Dean spastically goes nuclear against Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., in a primary, how will he handle dangerous nuclear non-proliferation talks with North Korea's Kim Jong Il?
Anyone who thinks that Howard Dean is ready for prime time, I've got three words: "Meet The Press". A few weeks ago, Dean was destroyed on the NBC Sunday morning show. While it is no shame to be tripped up by hard-hitting host Tim Russert, Dean's act was considered by many observers to be perhaps the worst performance in the history of the show. The "straight talking" Dean stumbled on a number of issues (military, social security, the death penalty) that made him seem like he wasn't even ready for another run for office in Vermont - no less the presidency.
At one point Russert called him on his bomb throwing reputation by asking him which democratic candidates he was referring too when he said some of them needed a "backbone transplant". Dean would not answer and dissembled as if he were Bill Clinton discussing sex or Bush talking about vanishing weapons of mass destruction.
Dean has received support from the GLBT community because he has been linked to the passage of a civil unions bill in Vermont, which gives same-sex couples many of the same rights and benefits offered married couples. But in reality, civil unions were not Dean's idea. The Vermont Supreme Court mandated that same-sex couples be given equal treatment. Dean simply did the bare minimum to fulfill this requirement - with the maximum being full-fledged marriage, which Dean opposes. His stand on civil unions isn't particularly brave or revolutionary coming from a Vermont Democrat.
Dean's public interest in civil unions probably comes as much from necessity as from true conviction. The civil unions bill was one of the rare opportunities that a governor from Vermont could make national news. It also opened the vault early to a national network of wealthy GLBT donors that could help ignite his long shot campaign. What other national issue could a Vermont governor campaign on - the introduction of a new flavor from Ben & Jerrys?
Don't get me wrong. Dean is a strong supporter of GLBT equality; he has admirably campaigned in gay bars and has spoken more than any other candidate about gay rights in front of straight audiences. But the other Democratic candidates are also good on GLBT equality and deserve a serious look. Dean doesn't particularly stand out on our issues and when you factor in his character deficiencies, he comes up short
More than most people, GLBT Democrats want to defeat George W. Bush. We are outraged that Bush stole the election in Florida. We are crushed that the GOP increased their advantage in the House and gained control of the Senate.
An unfortunate turn of such epic political fortunes has brought an air of political desperation for GLBT Democrats - including myself. Like a punch drunk fighter on the verge being knocked out, we are understandably groping incoherently for a savior to rescue us.
Sadly, I'm afraid this political disorientation is affecting the judgment and ability of some people in our community to accurately appraise Howard Dean. They are seeing a hero where they should see a hapless politician who has ineptly bungled his way through the campaign trail.
Dean is a politician with poor people skills who can sometimes come across as elitist, arrogant and temperamental. His "know-it-all" attitude is increasingly alienating the press and fellow Democratic opponents. He is making enemies where he should be making friends and I don't see how he can appeal to middle America.
The question Dean must answer is whether his early missteps come from inexperience or an inherent character flaw. I sincerely hope that Dean can learn from the past and start behaving presidential. His good qualities are many and he appears tougher and more persistent than many Democrats.
But GLBT Democrats must honestly look at Dean for who he is today and not project onto him an image they desperately want him to be. Any honest appraisal will show that Dean so far is a gaffe prone politician who has shown a penchant for self-destructive comments that may ultimately prove his demise. While his fans compare his shoot at the hip style to Arizona Sen. John McCain, he has so far exhibited more in common with foot in the mouth Dan Quayle. GLBT Democrats should get real and look at the man, not the myth before getting suckered by the seductive Dean Delusion.
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