Vermont's Dean too green for White House

Posted: Nov 12, 2003 12:00 AM

Since so many people seem to think Howard Dean would make a great president, I wonder if they might be willing to vote for the county commissioner of Dekalb, Ga., instead? How about the guy or gal who administers Jefferson County, Ala.? Or Hidalgo, Texas?

All of these places have bigger populations than Vermont. They - and dozens of other counties - are not only bigger, but they're more diverse, more dynamic economically and culturally and, in many ways, more difficult to govern than the idyllic Green Mountain State. Indeed, after visiting the state for a recent article for National Review, it seems to me an indisputable proposition that the mayor of Baltimore has a much more difficult job description than the governor of Vermont.

When confronted with the fact that Vermont is teeny-weeny, Howard Dean typically replies that Bill Clinton was governor of a small state, too, when he was elected president. That's true, but Arkansas is still some four times more populous and far more economically and ethnically diverse than Vermont. Arkansas - a border state in the American Southwest, close to the demographic and political center of the country - also has something Vermont doesn't: a fairly representative political culture.

Vermont, on the other hand, has opted for self-imposed exile on the political margins of the nation. How so? Well, for the past 30 years, wealthy liberals, mainly from New York and Massachusetts, have moved to Vermont while the flinty traditional Vermonters of yore have moved out or been politically marginalized. These immigrants are called Flatlanders by the traditional denizens of the state. And the Flatlanders are bent on making Vermont an Epcot Center exhibit of Green socialism.

It is the political tastes of these neo-Vermonters, far more than Jim Jeffords' principles or conscience, that explain why the senator decided to bolt the Republican Party.

But a better illustration of Vermont's transformation is the state's Act 250, an environmental law passed in 1970. Its supporters claim it saved Vermont from vaguely defined ecological doom. Its critics say it's an attempt to make the state hospitable to limousine liberals from New York and trendy couples whose idea of farming is renovating a barn so they can appear in Architectural Digest.

Under Act 250, the gauntlet of regulations developers need to go through in order to receive a permit for just about anything is similar to the barrage of kicks and punches gang members receive when they try to leave the gang. The only difference is that with gangs, each member gets only one whack at the victim as he passes by. Act 250 requires building-permit seekers to comply with 10 different criteria - in areas involving environmental, social and aesthetic factors - and there's no end to the appeals environmentalists and spoilers can level on any of these fronts.

Because the University of Vermont is something of a madrassa for environmental extremism - churning out armies of activists who fan out across the country - and because so many rich liberals have bought houses there, the political pressure to freeze the state in amber is immense.

In fact, in 1993, during the debate over whether Wal-Mart would be allowed in Vermont, the National Trust for Historic Preservation designated the entire state an "endangered historic place." That would all be fine except for the fact it's all nonsense - in 1850, Vermont was 35 percent forested, today it's 76 percent and rising - and, worse, it's hurting average Vermonters who actually wouldn't mind getting a good job.

Bernie Sanders, the state's sole congressman - and an avowed socialist - constantly blames Vermont's hemorrhaging of jobs on NAFTA and other leftist bugaboos. But the fact is that most of the manufacturing jobs leaving Vermont go to New York, Massachusetts and New Hampshire.

The anti-development climate has gotten so bad that when IBM opted to open a new plant in Fishkill, N.Y. rather than invest in Vermont, the Burlington Free Press celebrated the move as a victory: "Even die-hard supporters of economic development sighed in relief when IBM announced its new chip plant would be built in New York State," the paper editorialized. "Had the jobs come here, there would have been no place for workers to live."

Sure, it's true that Howard Dean - a flatlander from Park Avenue and ritzy East Hampton - is more of a centrist than many of his critics are willing to concede. But he is a centrist in an increasingly off-center state. He may be a moderate for Vermont, but that doesn't make him a moderate anywhere save perhaps for places like San Francisco or Cambridge, Mass.

More to the point, Dean thinks that Vermont is a model for the whole country. But a virtually all-white state with no crime, almost no immigration and an economic philosophy that rests on the health of the ski industry, the demand for Ben & Jerry's ice cream and the continuing influx of millionaire immigrants may not be the best North Star for a heterogeneous nation of 300 million people.