You Have the PowerHow to Take Back Our Country and Restore Democracy in America
Simon & SchusterCopyright © 2004 Howard Dean
All right reserved.ISBN: 0743270134
from Chapter 1: From Anger to Hope
"I WANT MY COUNTRY BACK!"
The words just rose from my gut. And when they hit the room on that sunny March day in 2003, everything seemed to stop. The California Democrats, who only minutes earlier had been milling around, talking among themselves, and half listening as presidential candidate after candidate had made a play for their attention, paused. Everyone seemed to take a deep breath. And then the whole convention just exploded.
"WE WANT OUR COUNTRY BACK!"
"I don't want to be divided anymore," I said.
"I don't want to listen to the fundamentalist preachers anymore.
"I want America to look like America."
People were weeping quietly. Some were openly sobbing. Others were screaming. Standing on their chairs and stamping their feet.
Outside in the corridors, people were spontaneously writing checks and throwing them at my staff. They lined up, they mobbed us as we tried to make our way through the lobby. Some came away crying again, my aides later told me, because they'd been able to touch my suit.
My old $125 JCPenney suit.
I had no idea campaigning for president would mean becoming a part-time rock star. I was completely stunned. Overwhelmed. And humbled.
When I left the crowd and took off for the airport, when I got to the plane and found my seat, when the dust had settled and I was anonymous once again, I had a moment to reflect, and something became crystal clear:
What had happened in that room had very little to do with me. I'd been the catalyst for an eruption of feeling that was much deeper, more powerful, and, I would learn, more widespread than anything I'd ever imagined.
It was a low-burning fire of resentment and rage. All it needed was a simple spark in order to explode.
I ran for president because I was angry about where our country was going and I thought we could do better.
I was horrified by the way George W. Bush was governing our country. Mortgaging our future with irresponsible tax cuts for his friends. Despoiling our environment with huge giveaways to industry. Dividing us in the worst possible ways. Endangering our children with air pollution and draconian cuts in health-care services. Turning America into a monster in the eyes of the rest of the world.
I hadn't started out a Bush-basher. In fact, I'd been predisposed to like George Bush. I knew him personally and had dealt with him professionally when we were both governors. He'd always been charming and hospitable to me and my family, both in the Governor's Mansion in Texas and at the White House. He'd always been more than upright in the business dealings between our states, keeping his word when he had no legal obligation to do so. What I knew of his record in Texas bespoke a moderate man who was willing to put pragmatism before ideology, to raise taxes when necessary to equalize state education spending, and to take some heat from the right wing of his party for doing so. ("I hate those people," he'd once snarled at me when I ribbed him at a White House governors' gathering about some trouble he was having in Texas with the Christian Coalition.)
I'd approached his presidency with an open mind. I hadn't voted for Bush, but I didn't expect the worst of him, either. After all, I'd always been in the moderate middle of my own party — a staunch advocate of fiscal discipline, a devotee of balanced budgets, pro-choice but also pro-gun owners' rights, and in favor of the death penalty in some instances. In my races for governor, I'd always enjoyed the support of a certain number of moderate Republicans who shared my commitment to balanced budgets and responsible social spending. "Compassionate conservatism" sounded like something I could live with until the next Democrat ran. And from what I knew of George W. Bush's personality and temperament, I figured I could live with him, too.
I was astounded, then, when Bush cast moderation and conservatism aside and took up the mantle of right-wing extremism. He surrounded himself with radical ideologues and extremists: people who made a crusade of our foreign policy and polluted our government institutions with fundamentalist bigotry. I was shocked when the president set out to dismantle the social programs that Americans hold most dear: Social Security and Medicare. When he set out to undermine our system of public education with a bill called No Child Left Behind, which threatened to classify every public school in America as a failed institution within nine years. When he took aim at women through virulent anti-choice policies and at ethnic minorities through his repeated references to nonexistent "quotas."
None of this squared with the George Bush I knew. The lies and manipulations that lay behind such sham policies as No Child Left Behind (or No School Board Left Standing, as I came to call it) shocked me, coming from a man I remembered as having truly cared about things like education reform and improving opportunity for all children.
The sheer stupidity of much of what came out of the White House surprised me, because I knew firsthand that George W. Bush was not, by any means, a stupid man.
I doubted that he'd really changed his views. It seemed unlikely that he'd gone, in a matter of months, from moderation to the far side of the dark side of the American political spectrum. No — I concluded that once he'd gotten into the Oval Office, he'd become so disconnected from ordinary people and the details of their lives that he'd let the Republican Party's ideology get the better of him. He was missing the fine points of how that ideology affected ordinary people because he just didn't care about the details.
He painted the broad strokes of his policies and then left the details to Congress or the political hacks in his administration. Letting the chips fall where they might for millions of children. And sick people. And elderly Americans.
That lack of caring, that shrugging off of the details of ordinary Americans' lives, was every bit as enraging to me as purposeful, hateful extremism. It seemed to me, in some ways, even worse. It was callous and opportunistic. And it showed a willingness to put real people — real, ordinary Americans — in jeopardy.
Even more infuriating was the way my fellow Democrats went along for the ride, voting so much of the time to advance the president's perilous agenda. They approved his tax cuts, the Medicare prescription-drug act, the war resolution, and educational "reforms" — all destructive measures that wouldn't have passed without their support.
The Democrats were acting as though Bush had been elected with a five-million-vote plurality and not, as was the case, with five hundred thousand fewer popular votes than Al Gore. They weren't acting like an opposition party. They barely stood up to the president. When he asked for his unaffordable and immoral $1.6 trillion in tax cuts, they lay down and died.
One-point-six trillion? they protested. Oh, no. Make it $1.25 trillion. And not a penny more.
The Democrats were sweet-talked, they were bamboozled, and they were afraid. They thought that by accommodating the administration, they were somehow going to be okay. In doing so, they helped the Republican Party pass its far-right-wing agenda.
I thought: Our people have to start acting like Democrats again.
I was far from alone in my thinking.
When I started feeling my way toward my campaign, traveling around the country making appearances on behalf of other Democrats, talking about health care and early childhood education, and then speaking out against the war in Iraq, I came upon a lot of people who felt exactly as I did. They were just like the people at the California convention, bursting with resentment and desperate for hope. They were profoundly angry both with President Bush and with the Democrats who weren't doing anything to stand in his way. They were not only angry but scared and frustrated, because they saw their country changing in ways that threatened everything they cared about. And they felt powerless to stop it.
Their faith in our institutions had been eroded to a point where many of them hardly believed in the political process. In 1998 they'd seen their elected Congress suspend its responsibility to represent them and vote to impeach their president even though two thirds of the electorate was against it. In 2000 they'd seen right-wing appointees on the Supreme Court refuse to recount the Florida votes, overriding the rulings of the Florida Supreme Court, and essentially hand the presidency to their party's candidate.
They'd seen Republican protesters sent by Texas representative Tom DeLay, then the third most powerful Republican in the House, banging on windows and shaking their fists at vote counters in West Palm Beach, Florida; African-American voters systematically turned away at the polls; a family dynasty strong-arming election officials — overall, a political horror show worthy of a banana republic. It was the most serious attack on America's faith in democracy since the Tilden-Hayes debacle in 1876, when a Republican-dominated panel of congressmen, senators, and Supreme Court justices stepped in to decide a disputed election (with vote irregularities claimed in Florida, among other states). They ruled in favor of the Republican candidate, Rutherford B. Hayes (earning Hayes the popular sobriquet of "Rutherfraud"). And it had sent a clear message to the public: The Republicans had little respect for our democratic institutions if they got in the way of their party's agenda, and the Democrats were mostly toothless when it came to fighting back.
The Republican assault on democracy didn't stop with the election.
Next came a flurry of off-year congressional-district gerrymandering, with a wink and a nod from the White House, to give Republicans an advantage. House majority leader Tom DeLay rammed a change through the Texas House to redistrict in such a way that as many as five congressional Democratic seats could be lost with the stroke of a pen. White House strategist Karl Rove personally lobbied Colorado lawmakers by phone to get them to approve a redrawing of their state's congressional map to protect the seat of a freshman Republican congressman who'd won with only a 121-vote margin. There were election irregularities in Alabama, where, after the polls were closed and the press had gone home, six thousand votes were suddenly discovered that tipped the election away from the Democratic governor to a Republican challenger. There was the organized conservative effort to unseat an elected governor in California. Then there was Supreme Court justice Anthony Scalia's duck-hunting junket with Vice President Dick Cheney, after which the justice refused to recuse himself from the case Cheney had pending before the Court.
Even the plan adopted by Congress to deal with the Florida recount debacle — the Help America Vote Act — looked fixed from the start. No sooner had Congress authorized the states to buy new equipment to improve the reliability of future vote counting than the news came out that the new touch-screen voting machines were potentially more subject to tampering. Worse still, they left no paper trail. Worst of all: Two of the companies providing the new machines — Election Systems Software and Diebold Election Systems — had notable links to the Republican Party. Most notably, Walden O'Dell, the CEO of the voting-machine maker Diebold Election Systems, had said in a fund-raising letter that he'd do all he could in "helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes for the President."
The fix, it seemed, was in.
I spoke to African-Americans who said the Florida election debacle, with the reports of election-night police roadblocks in black neighborhoods, the wholesale removal of African-Americans from the voting rolls, and poll workers who turned black voters away brought back all too recent memories of the Jim Crow South. The whole experience had convinced them that the political system was hopelessly fixed against their interests. For a community already suspicious of our government institutions, this was a terrible blow — not just for them but for democracy. "People already didn't believe their votes counted," I heard. "Now they know they don't count."
This feeling of disenfranchisement wasn't limited to African-Americans or to the 2000 presidential vote. It came, more globally, from living in a society where ordinary people's problems and interests didn't seem to matter to their government. As the Bush administration passed measure after measure for the benefit of super-wealthy individuals and big corporations — the tax-cut bill, the Medicare prescription-drug act, and a whole slew of pro-industry environmental measures — it became increasingly clear that its true constituents were the people who paid for its campaigns.
And the Democrats — where were the Democrats?
Americans felt betrayed. Not only by their government but by their employers, many of whom were cutting benefits
or downsizing or moving factories overseas. People who'd supported their families for decades were forced into shift work at places like Wal-Mart, earning minimum wage without health insurance, if they had jobs at all.
Americans were scared, too. Scared that there were more terror attacks to come, and that the administration's war on Iraq had made us more vulnerable. Many saw that they'd been lied to in the run-up to the war, and they were stunned by the extreme anti-American venom that had been unleashed because of those lies.
Americans were afraid that for all its military might, our country was on its way to becoming weaker. Weaker domestically, because people were demoralized and divided. Weaker internationally, because our moral authority was all but gone and because our foreign policy was being held hostage to an energy policy that made the procurement of large amounts of foreign oil a necessity.
People were angry, and they were cynical. They were depressed. They were caught off balance and confused — by the lies and manipulations of the Bush administration, and also by the fact that so many of the pillars of our society had proved in recent years to be so fragile. The Catholic Church scandals, the Florida recount, the Enron fiasco and other corporate corruption cases of its type: These were crises that went far beyond politics. They'd shaken up people's ability to believe in the essential rightness of our most basic institutions. Even the Monica Lewinsky scandal had broken a lot of people's hearts, because they'd seen not just their president but the presidency itself profoundly weakened.
People were aware of living in a world of anything-goes ethics. They were aware of being vulnerable to unpredictable catastrophic acts of terror. All of this made them doubt their leaders, doubt their future, doubt themselves. Young people — people too young to remember Watergate or Vietnam — were particularly hard hit psychologically, once the irrational confabulations that had led us into the war in Iraq were exposed. They'd grown up trusting in the basic good of the American government and the basic moral decency of its interventionist policies abroad. Now all this was crashing down around them, and they were at a loss to reassemble the pieces of their pride and their patriotism.
This general crisis of confidence was something that no one — not Democrats, and certainly not Republicans — was finding words to address. Even the media, which sensed it, didn't get it.
I got it because, as an ordinary American living my life far outside the Beltway, I felt the way everyone else did. The only difference between me and most people was I had spent eleven years as a governor. I'd chaired the National Governors Association and the Democratic Governors' Association. So when I got mad, when I got sick of listening to myself complain, when I read The New York Times in my armchair and asked myself, Well, are you going to sit there, or are you going to do something about it? I was able to say, Yes, I will. I will do something about it.
I knew that I could, and in 2002, with my last term as governor drawing to a close, I was in a position to decide that I would.
So I opened a little campaign office in Montpelier. I began to travel around the country, governing on weekdays, meeting people on weekends, stumping for Democratic candidates, and getting out my message about health care
and early childhood education and fiscal responsibility and the war.
As the governor of the second-smallest state in the country, I had no name recognition, to put it mildly, and no support from my party, to put it nicely. I had no campaign infrastructure, no press team, no handlers, no consultants, no "oppo research."
I would speak on behalf of candidates for other offices, share my views, tell the story of what I'd been able to do in Vermont, and then announce that I was running for president. People would go from looking interested to being amused. You seem like a nice person, their faces seemed to say, and you've got some good ideas. But what makes you think an ordinary guy like you can run for president?
I marched in a Greek Independence Day parade in Boston in the summer of 2002, and people shouted,
"Governor!" — at Mike Dukakis. One man said he'd definitely vote for me — when I ran for mayor again.
Jim Jordan, John Kerry's former campaign manager, called me "an unemployed doctor with no responsibilities." The New York Times mocked me for my lack of foreign-policy experience. Everyone went on about my so-called intemperate way of speaking ("mad-mouth disease," James Carville called it).
But ordinary people didn't listen. Ordinary people started to think that having an ordinary guy run for president wasn't such a bad idea.
I realized in New York, and in Portland and Seattle — in all the places where I'd get up to speak and face a sea of people stretching back as far as I could see — that if you had something to say, people would come out to listen. I realized that people were hungry to listen if they came across a politician who really had something to say.
I realized, too, that people were thrilled to find a politician who reminded them of themselves. Someone who lived a normal life, with a wife and a family, who struggled to balance work and family, and sometimes got it right and sometimes didn't. Who shouted too loudly at hockey games and didn't always know the right thing to say. Who made "gaffes." Who disliked the media — and showed it. Who wore an old cheap suit and liked it, and traveled coach class and stood in line, and took the subway and ate too many doughnuts.
People felt they were like me. They felt they knew me. They followed my progress around the country on the blog entries that my campaign aide Kate O'Connor updated every day. If she wrote that we were eating too much junk food, people would show up at events with home-cooked meals. If I had a cold, they'd show up with cold medicines. They worried about me. If I misspoke, they scolded me. On the blog, they addressed me as "Guv."
They loved my wife, Judy, who kept up her medical practice while I toured the country. She chose to stay home to work and be with our seventeen-year-old son, Paul, a high school senior. To the media, this was poor campaign strategy. "Physician, heal thy spouse," wrote The New York Times's Maureen Dowd. But to regular people, it was great. They understood Judy because she was a normal person. Because, like them, she led a life filled with competing commitments and responsibilities. They understood her priorities — that you can't simply walk away from a job or a teenager at the drop of a hat, because children — and for her, patients — need you to be around. People got that.
Having a candidate who was like them clicked on a profound level with people. It suggested to them that they weren't alone. It made them feel listened to, as though they counted. And it made them feel, for the first time in a long time, that there was hope in a political landscape that, for as long as they could remember, had seemed all but closed to them and their concerns. To them, politicians seemed to care only about the interests of big-money donors. This flicker of hope, which the campaign ignited, soon turned into something more like a lightning bolt. It jolted people out of feeling disenfranchised and depressed. It made them feel empowered.
Copyright © 2004 by Howard Dean