Dean: "People Are Ready for Kerry"

The former Democratic front-runner looks back at his failed campaign and forward to the battle to unseat President Bush

In the annals of Presidential campaigns, the rise and fall of Howard Dean's candidacy will be pored over by political scientists for years to come. The MD and former governor of Vermont emerged from obscurity last year to become an early front-runner for the Democratic Presidential nomination. He raised an unheard-of $50 million in campaign contributions on the Internet, showing the power of the medium for filling political war chests.

Then Dean, who was an odds-on favorite before a single primary or caucus vote had been cast, saw his campaign fall apart. He became the target of constant attacks from all his Democratic rivals, and his organization ran into trouble. He finished third in the Iowa caucuses, never recovering from the infamous "Dean Scream" episode. His rousing exhortation to his network of Deaniacs the night of the caucuses was played over and over on national TV, and it became the butt of endless jokes on late-night talk shows. Try as he might to project a more somber and substantive image, he bowed out in the spring of 2004, after winning only one primary, in his home state of Vermont.

Now Dean -- relaxed and reflective -- is helping his former rival, Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, in the battle against incumbent President George Bush in November. Dean is writing a book about the experiences, giving speeches, and still keeping a network on the Internet with the many supporters who contributed $10 and $20 to his effort.

Recently, he visited BusinessWeek's Washington bureau to talk with reporters and editors about his quest for the White House, what he learned, what he wished he had done differently, and what he sees ahead. Here are edited excerpts (a BusinessWeek Online Video View of the conversation is also available):

Q: So what did you learn about this year's electorate from your primary campaign?

A:

I think [people] are very worried about their jobs. They have a lot of concerns -- moving jobs overseas is a huge issue. You work for 20 years, and all of a sudden, your job is gone, and it's not coming back.

Q: Hasn't an improving job picture defused that?

A:

Not a bit. Because the jobs we're getting are $8.50-and-no-benefits at Wal-Mart. The numbers you see help Wall Street [but] don't help people who are laid off. We globalized corporate rights, but we didn't globalize workers' rights. So, essentially, we have to relearn as a global economy the same lesson America learned when unions came in a hundred years ago...that you have to find a way to divide the spoils of capitalism in some way that the workers feel is reasonable.

Q: You were very forceful in your criticism of the invasion of Iraq during your campaign. And your message seemed to resonate strongly with Democrats. Yet, there's very little difference between John Kerry and George Bush [on Iraq policy]...

A:

That's mostly because George Bush has moved to the left on Iraq, since things haven't been going well. The President is incapable of doing anything right in Iraq at this point. He got us there under false pretenses, and it's hardly likely we will have a successful outcome. My guess is he'll try to pull the troops out, and Iraq will probably go up in flames. And he will have created a national security problem for the U.S. where none existed before.

Q: Kerry says he would go to the U.N....

A:

It [would be] irresponsible to pull out of Iraq without having the U.N. in. The President is never going to be able to get the U.N. [to assume some peacekeeping responsibilities in Iraq], but John Kerry will be [able to] as President.

Q: What about Ralph Nader's candidacy?

A:

A vote for Nader is a vote for Bush. Third parties served a very good and important function [in the past, but] this is just a very bad year for a third party.

Q: What do you think Kerry needs to do in order to improve his message?

A:

There's a two-step decision in changing Presidents. First, do you think George Bush should be reelected? I think a lot of people are considering that question now, who might not have considered it a month ago. The second is, do you think that John Kerry should be the President of the United States? People don't know John Kerry that well, yet. He has five months. And I think he'll do a good job. I think people are ready for John Kerry. But they need to see what John Kerry is about.

Q: So his message is perfectly fine?

A:

No, I think his message is very good. I have been on the stump with him, and he has done an excellent job.

Q: No room for improvement?

A:

There's always room for improvement for everybody. I think he has basically done a very solid job.

Q: How about his choice for Vice-President?

A:

[Laughs] I'm not going to choose.

Q: What should Kerry's selection criteria be?

A:

The first criteria for every Vice-Presidential choice should always be, can this person be President if something happens to the President?

A: How do you keep momentum going for increasing small-donor contributions to candidates? You were successful with this during your campaign, and it has actually continued because Kerry has raised money over the Internet.

Q:

If you care about democracy, you have to do more than vote. The bare minimum is the message I give. You've got to vote, but you [also must] send 10 bucks to the candidate you like.

Q: You have criticized the policies of Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan...

A:

I think Greenspan should not have been appointed to [another] term. I make no bones about that. My hero in public policy in the past 20 or 30 years is [former Fed Chairman] Paul Volker, who saved this country from an economic catastrophe when no elected politician would do it.

I think Greenspan served the country well until the last couple of years, when he embraced making the [Bush] tax cuts permanent and reducing Social Security benefits at the same time. He [supported] the largest wealth transfer in history, from middle class and poor people to the wealthiest people in America. That's not public policy in the long-range interests for this country. It's simply a very bad, short-sighted public policy.

Q: How would you grade the media in terms of how they cover the Presidential campaigns?

A:

I'm not getting into that. I am writing a book, and that's a whole chapter. [Laughter]. It takes a lot of thought.

Q: Ralph Nader was here a couple of weeks ago and praised the innovation you brought to your campaign through the use of the Internet. He was in New Hampshire, and he was convinced you were going to win...

A:

So were we. [Laughter]

Q: ...But he expressed disillusionment with the Internet in the end. He said it was a cold medium, and he's not sure it's really as important and innovative a tool.

A:

He doesn't understand, most people don't understand, the full power of the Internet. You can't use it exclusively. But the power is much more than fund-raising. There's a real community out there.

I'll give you a great example of this. I just gave a speech, and there were a whole bunch of people holding Dean signs. They didn't know each other. Yet, they were as close friends as you could imagine, they had come from all over the country, and they had met on the Internet through the power of the campaign.

Q: It was the power of e-mail, right?

A:

That's right. It was the two-way communication. There must have been 50 Web sites we had -- African Americans for Dean, Irish Americans for Dean. It's expensive to do it right. We spent a lot of money on the Internet. But you really can build a virtual community. That's not enough to win an election, as we found out. But it really is an important tool.

And it's a way to bypass the mainstream media, to give your message in an unfettered, direct way. It's a free marketplace of ideas, and you hope people are educated enough to separate the wheat from the chaff, and they do it with their own ideological filter. But that's the genius of democracy, the unfettered access to information that may or may not be true -- and you gotta somehow figure it out.

Q: What was the missing plank in your campaign?

A:

We had organizational problems. We had message problems. The biggest problem of all was that we were the front-runner, and everybody thought we were going to win, and they all [makes a crunching noise] scrunched us.

Compiled by Melissa Lynn in Washington, D.C.

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