Politics & Policy

Dean’s Rhetorical Twister

Rivals say the Vermont contender has inconsistent war views.

Howard Dean, the Democratic presidential candidate and former governor of Vermont, is probably not very popular with the other contenders from his party right now.

During a speech at California Democratic party’s state convention earlier this month, Dean took aim at Senators John F. Kerry and John Edwards, who voted last fall for a congressional resolution authorizing force against Iraq. Dean accused the two senators of “not standing by their positions” when they addressed the California audience, which was mostly opposed to the war.

#ad#According to an account by the Boston Globe’s Glen Johnson, Kerry and Edwards had an audible and animated discussion about Dean on the floor of the Senate last Wednesday. Reporters overheard Edwards saying, “He got up there and lied,” apparently in reference to Dean’s speech.

But Dean was at least partially mistaken — Edwards, who spoke to the California audience before Dean did, reiterated his support for disarming Iraq by force and was booed and jeered by many in the crowd. Kerry reportedly made an “oblique reference” to his position and also heard criticism from the crowd.

Dean later admitted he had not heard Edwards’s speech and was unaware of what the North Carolina senator had said when he criticized him. Dean also sent a handwritten letter of apology to Edwards, the Washington Post reported Thursday.

But sources close to other Democratic candidates are counterattacking, accusing Dean of turning up the volume on his passionate antiwar rhetoric in relatively liberal Iowa and then muting his war criticism in the more conservative key primary state of South Carolina.

Dean visited the southern state early last week, and Lee Bandy, political columnist for The State newspaper of Columbia reported that Dean would “tone down his criticism of President Bush in the weeks ahead.”

“It’s hard to criticize the president when you’ve got troops in the field,” Bandy quoted Dean as saying. “We all have got to support the troops. They didn’t send themselves over there, and they’re doing their jobs for the country.”

In Des Moines, Iowa on Monday, Dean told reporters he would not criticize President Bush “in a partisan way” while the war continues in Iraq, but won’t abandon his firm opposition to the war. “I’m certainly not going to change my message,” Dean said. “I don’t see how I could. I think the war is a problem, in terms of our long-term foreign policy.”

Dean has also tangled with the Los Angeles Times in the past two weeks after that newspaper quoted Dean as saying he was “uncomfortable” offering his usual criticism because it could be misinterpreted abroad. Dean said the Times quoted him incorrectly, and that his view that “this is the wrong war at the wrong time is well known and has not changed.” The Times is standing by its story.

Dean has been on the campaign trail for a while, and his opponents have noticed earlier contradictions as well.

On January 31, Dean told Ron Brownstein of the Los Angeles Times that “if Bush presents what he considered to be persuasive evidence that Iraq still had weapons of mass destruction, he would support military action, even without U.N. authorization.”

And then on Feb. 20, Dean told Salon.com that “if the U.N. in the end chooses not to enforce its own resolutions, then the U.S. should give Saddam 30 to 60 days to disarm, and if he doesn’t, unilateral action is a regrettable, but unavoidable, choice.”

But a day later, he told the Associated Press that he would not support sending U.S. troops to Iraq unless the United Nations specifically approves the move and backs it with action of its own. “They have to send troops,” he said.

Four days later on PBS’s News Hour with Jim Lehrer, Dean said United Nations authorization was a prerequisite for war. “We need to respect the legal rights that are involved here,” Dean said. “Unless they are an imminent threat, we do not have a legal right, in my view, to attack them.”

One Democrat, who is already supporting another candidate, is baffled that Dean is attempting to earn a reputation for principled views, labeling the former governor as “incoherent.”

“Here’s a guy posing as a McCainiac, but talking out of both sides of his mouth,” the Democrat said.

The chairs of the Iowa and South Carolina Democratic parties think that their states’ voters aren’t as different as night and day, but they concede that the states view the war and other issues with some contrasts.

“I think that the candidates are going to find when they get to South Carolina, to paraphrase the Wizard of Oz, this ain’t Iowa anymore, Toto,” said Richard Harpootlian, chair of the South Carolina Democratic party.

Iowa Democratic-party chair Gordon Fischer says the power of the antiwar movement in his state’s political circles is probably “overstated.” But he agreed that “there’s no question that there is a group of Iowa Democrats that is fairly large, that were passionately opposed to the war, that got involved in peace marches and demonstrations and went to candidates’ forums.”

Fischer cites a Des Moines Register poll showing about a third of Iowa Democrats are opposed to the war, about a third support it, and about a third is undecided.

South Carolina Democrats aren’t showing a clear preference yet either, according to Harpootlian.

“I don’t think there is a general consensus among South Carolina Democrats,” Harpootlian said. “Dean, who has been very vocal in opposition to the war, has found some support for that, and then you have those who supported the resolution like Lieberman and Kerry and they obviously have support as well.”

And while Harpootlian doesn’t think the conservatism of his state’s Democratic voters should be overstated, candidates should acknowledge that the state’s voters are very patriotic. The state is the home of Charleston Air Force Base, Fort Jackson U.S. Army base in Columbia, Marine Corps Air Station in Beaufort, and the Marine Corps Recruit Depot on Parris Island.

“There are some Democrats who have very strong support of this war, and have a strong streak of supporting this country,” Harpootlian said. “That doesn’t mean they support George Bush.”

Asked what advice he would give a Democratic presidential candidate running in South Carolina, Harpootlian said he would recommend “not getting hung up on fringe issues… South Carolina Democrats are moderate to conservative people. They’re more pro-death penalty than not, and choice is not the bell ringer here that it is in other places. I would talk about education, the environment, and economy — The three ‘E’s. And I would not just talk about how George W. Bush fumbled the economy. They have to talk about what they would do about it.”

Fischer said the war has only recently eclipsed the economy as the top issue on voters’ minds.

“Before the war took center stage, the Bush recession was the primary issue,” Fischer said. “The secondary issue was a bundle: Iraq, North Korea, terrorism, and homeland security. I think that those two — the economy and the terrorism bundle — will be the two mega-issues of 2004 campaign.”

In the coming weeks, it is likely that each Democratic candidate is going to have to address the pacifism of Iowa’s caucus-goers and the stronger support for the war among South Carolinian primary voters. And the rivalry between Kerry and Dean is likely to only get hotter in the coming months. Dean is touting a recent poll of likely New Hampshire voters by the American Research Group that showed Kerry with 23 percent and Dean with 22 percent — a difference well within the poll’s margin of error of 4 percent.

Good thing Dean doesn’t hang out on the floor of the Senate.

Jim Geraghty, a reporter for States News Service in Washington, is a regular contributor to NRO.

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