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A Prescription for Dr. Dean

Jon Stavole

As the first horse race of the season draws close in Iowa, the whole machinery of political business as usual has clattered to life to chase after Howard Dean. Last Sunday saw the latest in a series of Democratic debates that quickly devolved into a sniping four-way pile-on, and on Monday the covers of the Big Two news magazines threw the full weight of their received wisdom at him: "Doubts About Dean" (Newsweek), "Who Is the Real Dean?" (Time).

The official tune will change a little if Dean aces the early primaries. But there's no question he gives the political establishment the willies, as even the best-dressed party crashers tend to do. All told, it was another weekend of signs from on high that Dean has no sensible choice but to run as if America really had a two-party system. Which doesn't mean he will. By next July, when the Democrats gather in Boston, Dean (if he is the nominee) will probably have brokered the tepid, tenuous alliance with the Democratic party powers that he'll ride to his defeat. But for now, while anything still seems possible, let us imagine a different Dean taking the convention dais and defining the race on his terms:

"Tonight we stand at an important moment in history, and it is our job to understand that moment and to live up to it.

"Over the past four years the Bush administration has split the country in many ways. Their tax cuts for the wealthy widened a gulf between rich and poor in this country that had already grown shockingly large. They created a massive debt that Bush and the Republicans will be content to leave to our children to pay. George Bush's shoot-first, ask-questions-later foreign policy has alienated governments the world over, and more lastingly the hearts of millions who once looked to America as a beacon of freedom. From their ranks, the next generation of threats to our peace and security is already growing. We must eventually ask: Is there any way at all that this can make us safer in the long run?

"Too many in the world fear us now, and too many in America fear each other. For the past generation American politics has been run deliberately on the twin principles of fear and division. We must remember the other wars the Republicans have mounted here at home: the war on drugs, the war on crime, the battle to end public assistance to those in need.

"In each of these instances, a genuine problem was blown into a hot-button political issue defined largely by racism. And in each case it was Republicans leading the charge toward a more frightened, divided America, one in which their policy of aiding the privileged few at the expense of the many went unchallenged while the people were encouraged to fight among themselves.

"When did America become a land where everyone was supposed to live in fear and look out only for oneself and one's immediate family? When did it become a virtue to take no interest in whether your neighbor's child can read and write and has enough to eat? Because even if that is not what we believe in our hearts, that is exactly the country that we are allowing our government to build in our names.

"In modern times only a little more than half of eligible voters participate in elections for national office. We take this for granted, but it is really a staggering number. It should be a source of shame in any free country. How has the American government gotten so far from its people, and alienated so many of them? I believe Americans place extraordinary stock in the value of fair play, and I believe they know when they're not seeing it. In too many matters the deck is stacked now. And too often both political parties present themselves as the party of less government and more freedom for business.

"I want to talk about the idea of government for a moment. 'Government' is a bad word now, a symbol of corruption and inefficiency and intrusiveness. There is a reason for this. For over 20 years now Republicans have run against big government and won, claiming they only wanted to cut taxes and give your money back to you.

"I'm here to tell you it isn't so. No one would dispute that government needs to be well run and efficient. But inefficiency isn't the reason the right-wingers want to take apart government. I'll give you one of the most important examples of all--Medicare. It costs the government 3 cents on the dollar to administer Medicare programs. Private health care providers typically have overhead in the 15 to 20 cent range, by comparison.

"That's far less efficient, and yet the Bush administration and the Republicans want to start privatizing Social Security and Medicare. Why? Because it's a great market, a great place to generate more private wealth for the only class of Americans the Republicans really care about.

"So just remember this. When Republicans--and to a regrettable extent, Democrats--rail against government, what they're complaining about is usually government protections of one sort or another that most benefit average people. While the eyes of the world and of Americans have been on terrorism and war, the Bush administration has worked to cut taxes on the wealthy; to do away with cherished liberties and due process rights under the guise of fighting terror; to roll back workplace safety and clean air and water laws forged over a generation; to imperil consumer safety through laxer inspections of the meat and produce headed for our tables; and to allow our public schools to continue to deteriorate while parents with the most means keep on pulling their kids out.

"And why? Because it's good for America? No. Because lower taxes and fewer regulations means a fatter bottom line for corporate America.

"It's unthinkable that this sort of naked greed is allowed to go unchecked. It's more outrageous yet that almost no one in our political establishment or our news media even talks about problems like these.

"The Democratic party must accept its share of the blame. After Ronald Reagan was reelected in 1984, a number of Democrats launched a quiet revolution in the party. They claimed to be modernizing it, and what that meant was transforming the Democrats into a better competitor for the big-money political donations that Reagan and the Republicans brought rolling in. These so-called 'new' Democrats succeeded, and the party began breaking ties with the old 'special interests' that had kept away many of the big donors in the first place. And who were these special interests? Working people. Teachers. Poor people. Disabled or ill people. Black people. Pretty much everyone who couldn't afford to put cash on the barrelhead for a place at the banquet.

"No wonder so much of our base has deserted us through the years. The truth is, we left them first.

"I stand here tonight running not only against George Bush but also against the element of the Democratic party that wishes to remain a pale echo of the Republicans. This campaign will go nowhere without your help, and that includes the many millions of you who don't believe politics has anything to do with your life anymore. I need you on my side, because I can't win this race on the strength of traditional voters or traditional politics. I have to shoot the moon. I promise you two things: If you will come along with us, we can win this thing. And if we do, neither presidential politics nor the Democratic party is going to be the same.

"Now that the battle lines are drawn, you are going to hear the same recycled political slanders against me repeated with new vigor. That I was governor of a small state and I'd be in over my head as president. That I'm an old-school tax-and-spend liberal, the candidate who wants to put government on your backs again.

"Here's the truth of the matter: I'm the candidate who wants to take corporate America and George Bush and John Ashcroft and their friends off your backs--to make them pay their fair share and behave like good citizens for a change."

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