Op-Ed: Dean Says Tax Deal Is A Bad Compromise
NEAL CONAN, host:
The Senate is in the middle of a crucial test vote on President Obama's tax deal. We should know the results later today. The compromise would extend Bush-era tax cuts for two years and, among other things, extend unemployment benefits for 13 months. The president argued last week, this was the best deal available. Many in his own party disagree, including Howard Dean, the former chair of the Democratic National Committee, who joins us in just a moment.
We'll also hear from Ari Berman, contributing writer at The Nation and author of the book "Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics." The former governor of Vermont, Howard Dean, joins us now by phone from Washington. And Governor Dean, nice to have you back on the program.
Mr. HOWARD DEAN (Former Governor, Vermont; Former Chairman, Democratic National Committee): Nice to be back. Thank you.
CONAN: And some of the party are so upset with this compromise, they believe the president could use a strong challenge from the left, for the nomination in 2012. You're name has been mentioned. What do you think?
Mr. DEAN: Appreciate the compliment, but A, I'm not interested; and B, I think it's a bad idea. You know, we do have some fundamental differences with the president, but the fact is I think he's done a very good job in a lot of areas. He deserves reelection and it challenges to - in sitting incumbents, whether it's a Republican incumbent or Democratic incumbent, almost always end up in the challenger losing and weakening the president well enough so the president loses as well. So I'm not a fan of the idea of a primary challenge for the president.
CONAN: Even though you think this is a very bad deal.
Mr. DEAN: Well, I do disagree with this, and I'll tell you why. Leaving aside the tax policy of giving tax breaks to people who don't need them, there are some really big problems. First of all, this - the payroll tax, which is certainly well intended, essentially diverts $120 billion on the Social Security Trust Fund and pays for it with debt. This is like borrowing money and then putting it in the pension plan. That is complete no-no in the private sector, and it's a terrible idea.
Secondly, this bill, this supposed compromise, basically gives $300 billion to people who make a million dollars a year. That is a foolish waste of money. It doesn't do much to stimulate the economy. But the real problem is eventually we're going to have to deal with deficit, which is, I think, in the long term, the largest danger that the United States faces - worse than al-Qaida. And in order to deal with it, everybody is going to have to make some compromises. How are you going to start rein in Social Security and Medicare while you're giving tax breaks to people who make a million dollars a year?
So I think this bill is bad in two ways. It makes the deficit bigger. It raids the Social Security Trust Fund and replaces money with debt. And then - and the third instance, it makes it almost impossible in the next two years to deal with the deficit in any serious way.
CONAN: I wonder - Ari Berman, let me bring you in, the author of "Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics," here with us from our bureau in New York. It was interesting, right after the election, you said, well, even though some are then calling for people like Howard Dean to challenge the president, you said, A, he's not interested, which he's just reiterated, and B, was a good idea. Do you continue to believe that now after this tax compromise?
Mr. ARI BERMAN (Author, "Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics"): Well, I'm not sure I ever actually argued that it was a good idea. But what I said is that President Obama can't ignore the unrest in his base that even if, for example, a primary challenge to the president is not a good idea, Democrats are very restless on a whole number of issues, and that anxiety has just increased with his latest tax cut compromise. And so as he tries to navigate with the Republican Congress, Obama also has to keep in mind the wishes of his own base, the people that work so hard to elect him and will be so important for his reelection in 2012.
CONAN: I was interested in something else you wrote, Ari, and this was that the Democratic Party is better off with a smaller and more ideologically coherent caucus.
Mr. BERMAN: Yeah. Well, I argue in The New York Times op-ed, which they titled "Boot the Blue Dogs," somewhat provocatively, that the party would be better off with a smaller and more ideologically cohesive majority. Some people have said to me, afterwards, well, is the party better off losing the House? No, of course not. But what I said is there was so much difference of opinion in the House, in particular, that it really frayed the Democratic caucus and then undermined what the party stood for. And then in the Senate, because there were so many Democrats, they really wanted to get 60 votes for everything. That was the marker. And thus they didn't used the powers at their disposal to try to pass things like George W. Bush did, for example, with 51 votes.
And I said if the Democrats had a smaller and more ideologically cohesive majority in the Senate, in particular, they would be incentivize to actually do something about the filibuster, about Republican obstructionism that they weren't willing to do when they had 60 votes or 59 votes.
CONAN: Sixty votes is generally what you need in the Senate to get through the cloture motion ending the threat of a filibuster. So that is, indeed, what President Obama was talking about when he said Republicans had the - a strong hand here and asking for a compromise in this.
But Howard Dean, I wonder, you are famous for the 50-state strategy. When you were DNC chairman, you enlisted a lot of those Blue Dogs that Ari Berman is maybe not sorry to see go.
Mr. DEAN: Well, yeah. I think Ari and I might disagree on this one. The truth is that Nancy Pelosi managed the House really well. And despite the disparate opinions in her caucus, she was able to pass what I would consider a good financial deregulation bill and a very good health care bill. It was the Senate that fell apart. And I think the Senate fell apart because, as Ari said this is where we agree that they were obsessed with 60 votes and not tough enough to do what George Bush would have done.
And the story of the Democratic Party, the modern Democratic Party is we're simply not tough enough. We temporize. We are inclusive. I think it's very nice. But the fact is that Republicans are an incredibly well-organized group who are intent on taking power and put that as their highest objective, and compromise is not part of their objective. And we need to be much, much tougher than we have been. And that weakness, you could see in the Senate passing the health care bill with the reliance on trying to get all 60 members.
So, of course, the three biggest contentious people who weren't team players were going to write most of the bill. And that's exactly what happened. I don't think it's because we're disparate ideologically. I think it's a good thing to have a big tent. And I think in the long run, the history of the Republican Party is going to be one of dismay because they don't have a big tent, and the tent is getting smaller. But they're incredibly well-disciplined, and they make up for it.
CONAN: They among their areas of discipline seems to be their ability to communicate their message. And, again, that is something the administration and Congress have had some difficulty with.
Mr. DEAN: I agree with that. And for that, you have to talk about the White House crew. The fact is they have the ability - only the White House and the - Democratic administration with a Democratic president, only the White House can control the message. And they have to do a better job.
CONAN: Ari Berman, bring you back in. This - one of the things you said in your op-eds in The Nation, I think, and also in The New York Times, is that the White House could benefit a lot by listening to the lessons of the Howard Dean, not just the DNC chairman, but Howard Dean, the presidential candidate.
Mr. BERMAN: Absolutely. And that's really what I talk about a lot in my book, "Herding Donkeys," is Dean really had a new political playbook. He was the first candidate of the 21st century, and he inspired so many people in so many different ways. And he lowered the barriers for entry in terms of how we do politics. And that really became the blueprint for the Obama campaign, is get as many people involved in as many different places in as many different ways.
And Obama was this incredible fresh face who jumped in line because he ran against the establishment in both parties. And that's what people wanted to see from him in the White House. They wanted to see a new kind of leader, a transformational leader who would buck the status quo in both parties. And instead, he relied on very much holdovers from both the Clinton and Bush years. And that whole message of hope and change of the grassroots, of being a new kind of visionary leader, really went by the wayside. And I think that's what people have been so disappointed with in terms of Obama.
Mr. DEAN: I think Ari has got exactly the right take on that one. And here's what I mean by that. I talked to you know, I'm traveling all over the country still. And the Republicans and the independents, many of whom did vote for Obama, when they talked you heard change that we can believe in, they weren't so interested in health care reform or whatever it was as the Democrats were. What they were really interested in is changing the way business was done in Washington. That did not happen.
And part of the backlash and so forth in this past election was that, wait a minute. The appearance that insurance companies are getting theirs and the health care people are getting theirs and the doctors and the - drug companies, and so forth and so on. And then, you know, the senator from Nebraska gets $100 million for his hospitals, and the senator from Louisiana gets $300 million. Wait a minute. I'm having my trouble paying my mortgage. Isn't this business as usual? And that is what that's really the backlash. And in some ways, it's unfair, because I think the president really is a reformer.
But the fact is it didn't - we were an easy target for the resentments of what happens when you have high unemployment and the middle class is really stressed.
Mr. BERMAN: And, of course, the interest thing is the Tea Party then comes in and co-ops the team Obama message and runs on it in 2010.
CONAN: But Howard Dean, one thing a lot of people would say was that they were hoping that this was a post-partisan president, that he would change the culture in Washington, which, I guess, every newly elected president vows to do. But nevertheless, you see public opinion polls in response to this tax deal saying that - depending which poll you listen to - either 60 or 69 percent approve it, working across the aisle, working a compromise.
Mr. DEAN: Oh, I think the tax - I think that's right. I think -especially the younger generations who voted for him in droves and really elected this president - who I consider to be the first president of the under-35 generation - that's absolutely true. They really did want post-partisanship. That's not, of course, what's going on Washington.
My problem with the tax deal is not to it's post - not post-partisan. I think that's a great thing. I think the problem is it's a lousy bill, because it spends - it jacks up the deficit to all manner of heights, and that $300 billion of that is going towards people who don't need it and shouldn't have it. And it's going to make it more difficult to get the ultimate compromise. We need to keep our eye on the deficit while all of this - if you don't think so, look at Ireland and Portugal and Spain and Greece.
I mean, we got it. We - that's not a road we want to go down. And the other problem, of course, is taking $120 billion bonded money and sticking it in Social Security because we cut the payroll tax. Look, everybody wants to cut taxes. My problem with it is - a real problem with this bill. I wouldn't get in a huge argument about, you know, rich people getting tax rebates. You know, that's not my shtick. You know, everybody wants to be rich one day, and that they get tax rebates. But I do care about the deficit, and ultimately, we're going to have to deal with that.
And this kicks that - puts that off. There's more politicians in both parties telling people you can have tax cuts. Don't worry about it. We'll pay for it somehow. Well, the biggest component of the deficit, if you project it - and the national debt, if you project it out till 2018 - is not the war in Iraq and it's not the war in Afghanistan. It's the Bush tax cuts. Sixty percent of all our debt is going to be caused in 2018 by the Bush Tax cuts. And we have got to stop in this country, saying, don't worry. You can have anything you want, and nobody has to pay for it. The time is at hand. We're going to have to pay for it. And you're not just going to pay for it by cuts. You're going to pay for it by increased revenues, as well.
CONAN: Former DNC chairman Howard Dean. Also with us, Ari Berman, author of "Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.
And Ari Berman, we're hearing that the - probably, expectation is the Senate will pass the compromise agreement. There - excuse me. There's more resistance in the House of Representatives should Democrats resist this bill with the - and risk the possibility that come January 1st, they will be blamed for tax increases.
Mr. BERMAN: Well, I don't think that's going to happen, Neal. I think the party is in an uncomfortable position right now, and that a lot of people are going to vote for a bill that they don't really like. I think part of their frustration is based on the specifics of the deal. Part of it's also just how we got here. The president never really embraced what was one of his main proposals during the campaign, which was to extend the middle class tax cuts, and to have those for the wealthy expire.
And he didn't fight for it. He didn't use the bully pulpit. He didn't make it a big issue before the campaign, during the campaign. He didn't really have a strategy for it after the campaign. He didn't go across the country and say, we're for the middle class, Republicans are for millionaires and billionaires, like he did when he was in the campaign trail in 2008.
And so I think a lot of Democrats are unhappy that they were put in this position in the first place. They thought they could've won this fight on the merits, but it would've required presidential leadership. It would've required President Obama to have that fight. He punted on it. As someone said, as Anthony Weiner said, he punted on third down. And so what happened is he left his Democrats with this uncomfortable position. I think they'll hold their nose and vote for it, sort of like they did with TARP. But they're not going to be too happy about it.
CONAN: Some would say, though, the president will accept your point for the point of argument that he may not have campaigned across the country on this basis. But nevertheless, the president won a vote on this in September, and it was congressional Democrats who punted until after the election.
Mr. BERMAN: It's unclear how hard the president really pushed. They could have had this strategy much, much, much, much earlier on to deal with it. Everyone knew these tax cuts were expiring. They waited till right before the election to start talking about it. If it was part of their long-term strategy, then they could have figured out a way to deal with it, either through the reconciliation process or just getting enough Democrats in line to actually try to get 60 votes in the Senate and pass it in the House.
CONAN: Howard Dean, let me ask you. Some are suggesting that the president is emulating the policies of his predecessor, Bill Clinton, triangulating, if you will, and trying to get back the independent votes that people believed are absolutely crucial if he is to win reelection in 2012. Is that a viable policy?
Mr. DEAN: Well, I actually don't think the president has set out to do that. You know, I think what the president is doing is what he thinks is best. I believe the president when he said, look. This is the best deal I could get. I don't think it's the best deal he could get. I agree with Ari on that one. I think, you know, we haven't seen a real fight yet. And - but I do think he believes what he says. I think that he believes that it was important to get the payroll tax cut and the unemployment benefits and the tax cuts of the middle-class people, which is stimulative. I would agree with the majority economists that say that. So I don't think the president has a deliberate strategy of trying to triangulate.
The truth is triangulation is a much more dangerous strategy than it is - was for Bill Clinton. Bill Clinton was elected as a centrist. He was from Arkansas. Everybody understands that you can't be a liberal if you come for Arkansas. And, in fact, the truth of the matter is I think, in his heart, Bill Clinton is a liberal. But this president didn't get elected that way. He got elected because progressive Democrats all over the country - which, by the way, 78 percent of Democrats label themselves as progressive. Those are Democrats got him elected. And kids, young people slept on floors for 20 weeks in order to go out and get him elected. So it's very dangerous for him to pursue this game.
And we saw what happens during the election when African-Americans and young voters stayed home in droves, and it killed us. If you - if the same people had voted in 2008 that voted in 2010, the polling showed us - this is Anita Dunn's polling - that it would've been 45-45. Obama and McCain had been - would've been tied. So that shows you what the huge drop off was, and that has a lot to do with the kind of deflation of the progressives. And was - I think it was done on purpose by the White House staff. It was a terrible mistake, and it's got to - he's got to -it's not that the progressives are going to run a challenger. I don't believe that for minute. But they will stay home, and they won't be out there working as hard as they did in '08. And that is not a good thing.
CONAN: Howard Dean, thanks very much for your time today. Appreciate it.
Mr. DEAN: Thank you.
CONAN: Howard Dean, former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, joined us by phone from Washington. Ari Berman, a contributing writer for The Nation, the author of the book, "Herding Donkeys," joined us from our bureau in New York. And thank you for your time today.
Mr. BERMAN: Thank you, Neal. I appreciate it.
CONAN: Tomorrow, singer Tom Jones on his latest spiritual turn on a new CD, "Praise & Blame." Join us for that conversation with Tom Jones.
This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.