THETFORD, Vermont -- If former Vermont governor Howard Dean continues to bubble up to the higher reaches of the pre-, pre-presidential Democratic primary polls, we'll be hearing a lot of the following phrase: "Well, here's what we did in Vermont ...."
That line prefaced one of Gov. Dean's less contested statements on NBC's "Meet the Press," where the buzz-of-the-day Democrat recently suffered a journalistic grilling at the hands of a pleasantly rigorous Tim Russert -- rigorous, that is, until it came to discussing Howard Dean's 11 years in the Vermont statehouse. Along with the rest of the national media, Russert has so far given the physician-turned-politician a gubernatorial pass, as if there's no political point to examining what anyone did in such a tiny state.
Sound familiar? After looking the other way on the "Massachusetts Miracle" during the Dukakis presidential run, and driving blind through Arkansas during the Clinton campaigns, big media should do a little digging now that another ex-governor has put his small state on a pedestal to use as a national launch pad. And I mentioned this idea to Vermonter Ruth Dwyer, a savvy Republican veteran of the Vermont state legislature who ran two tough gubernatorial campaigns against Dean in 1998 and 2000.
Problem is, the media don't know (or, in the case of the Dean-devoted Vermont media, don't really want to know) the questions to ask.
Where should they begin their background research? On leaving office this year, Howard Dean sealed his gubernatorial papers for 10 years -- almost twice as long as his two predecessors, but considerably less than the 20-year-lock he sought -- determining himself, with his lawyers, what was covered by executive privilege. And so, on a hot, bright June morning, before Dwyer went back to her fields to bring in the hay --among other things, she is also a farmer -- we sat on her screened porch and cobbled together a list of questions the national media doesn't seem to have ever asked presidential candidate Howard Dean.
First, how come Gov. Dean, who is campaigning on his state record, sealed his own archive? "Well, there are future political considerations," the former governor told Vermont Public Radio. "We didn't want anything embarrassing appearing in the papers at a critical time in any future endeavor."
Well, at least he's up-front about things -- or is he? Having supported Vermont's divisive civil union law, which confers the legal rights of husbands and wives onto homosexual couples -- "in many ways," he said, "the most important event in my political life" -- he signed the controversial legislation behind closed doors. Why?
And speaking of controversial issues, is the Democratic Party ready to unite behind a leader who, as a med student, performed his OB-GYN rotation at a Planned Parenthood clinic? Vermont magazine reported on this in 1998, adding: "While he has never performed an abortion himself, he is strongly pro-choice and certainly understands the medical procedures involved." Which must rate as the medical equivalent of not inhaling.
The question is why didn't Dr. Dean, at one time on the board of Planned Parenthood, ever perform an abortion as a Planned Parenthood medical resident?
And how does Dr. Dean, who is also an opponent of parental notification, explain Vermont's status as one of a handful of states in which abortions may be performed by non-doctors? In 1998 -- the last year the state released data -- 183 girls under the age of 18 had abortions, more than half of them performed by non-doctors: Morality aside, is this even a healthy option?
Dean's loudest claim to gubernatorial fame is to have provided "free" health care to some large swath of Vermont's 600,000 citizens while simultaneously balancing the state budget. Is this for real? As of 1998, Vermont had the third highest percentage of Medicaid recipients in the Union (while next-door New Hampshire ranked 50). This indicates that Vermont's state-provided health care comes, in large part, courtesy Washington, D.C. How can Dean take credit for state-provided health care when, in fact, the lion's share is funded by federal taxpayers in other states? And how does such a scheme work on the national level?
As governor, Dean raided special funds to even out budget shortfalls: Is that balancing the budget? And how can Dean blame President Bush's recent tax cuts for rising property taxes when, for the past decade-plus, he governed a state with one of the highest state and local tax burdens in the nation? Corporations have left Vermont; farm revenues are down; logging and manufacturing jobs have disappeared. Maybe the only sector to thrive in the Dean years is the public sector: why? Indeed, what exactly does the Vermont economy consist of minus federal funds and pork? How well does such a record bode for the national economy?
With lower-than-average incomes, a heavier-than-average tax burden, and some of the highest health insurance premiums in the country, Vermont is hardly paradise for working people. Howard Dean has some explaining to do -- if someone will just ask a few questions.