Smearing Howard

Posted: Oct 30, 2003 12:00 AM

Lord knows that Howard Dean deserves to be attacked. The Democratic front-runner has said -- if not in so many words -- that his first act as president would be to run to Paris to apologize for the fact that the United States toppled Saddam Hussein. His second act would be to raise taxes. But it's hard to watch a Democratic debate and not feel a spasm of sympathy for the former Vermont governor.

If the Democratic primaries were a salacious TV reality series, they would be titled: "When Democrats Smear Their Own." Dean, populist hero of the left, is being hit with the sort of Democratic entitlement-demagoguery usually reserved for Republicans. Opponents have even used the "N-word" to describe him -- Newt Gingrich. How does it feel, Howard?

Dean says, in response, that none of the Democratic candidates deserves to be compared to Gingrich. Actually, Gingrich doesn't deserve to be compared to Gingrich -- at least not the Democrats' laughably distorted portrayal of him. Dean's sin was saying in the mid-1990s that he could support then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich's attempt to slow the growth of Medicare spending from 9.9 percent a year to -- hold your gasps, please --7.2 percent.

If this 2.7 percent difference seems minor and very doable on its face, well, that's because it was. In fact, President Clinton repeatedly declared early in his presidency that such savings in the galloping Medicare program were necessary to the nation's fiscal health. Clinton said in February 1993 that without health-care spending restraint, "our families will never be secure, our businesses will never be strong, and our government will never again be fully solvent." In September 1993 he said: "We passed a budget which has ... Medicare increases of between 11 percent and 9 percent. We cannot continue to do this."

He became a stark opponent of such savings only when Gingrich took Congress and he realized Medicare was a great club with which to beat the Republicans ("Medicare's a winner!" Dick Morris declared after reading the polls in one White House meeting). Dean's mistake was having the honesty in 1995 to stick to the original Clinton position. Which would eventually become the Clinton position again.

Clinton signed a ballyhooed budget deal with Republicans in 1997. More than half the projected savings in the budget agreement were from Medicare. It made the original GOP plan for savings look prodigal by comparison. In 1998 Medicare spending essentially held flat, and in 1999 it actually declined -- something that had never happened before. And grandmothers weren't thrown into the street!

For supporting mild Medicare spending restraint, for stating the obvious need to modernize Medicare's outdated bureaucracy and for broaching the topic of raising the Social Security retirement age -- all of which he did in the 1990s -- Dean is now attacked as a traitor. All of these positions were eminently sensible, meant to make liberalism's programmatic crown jewels sustainable. The attacks on Dean only demonstrate the Democratic Party's calculated aversion to rationality on entitlements.

Dean has many legitimate vulnerabilities. His cut-and-run Iraq policy would be disastrous for America's position in the world. But the rest of the Democratic candidates -- except for Joe Lieberman -- are too busy aping Dean on Iraq to attack him for it. His position on trade -- making trading partners meet U.S. standards for labor and environmental protections -- is de facto protectionism. And he wants to repeal all of the Bush tax cuts, even those that benefit the middle class.

At least John Kerry has hit him on trade and taxes. But the hardest shots against Dean in the debates are on Medicare and Social Security, because the Democrats have such a well-developed instinct for demagoguery on these issues. Straight-shooter Dean has had to disavow his prior entitlement truth-telling and say he never condoned cutting Medicare and would never raise the Social Security retirement age. Of course not. Whom do you think he is -- Newt Gingrich?

So it goes in the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party.