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Invisible Man

Uh oh. I am standing in the doorway of a hotel banquet hall, searching the room for Howard Dean, the governor of Vermont and Democratic presidential hopeful. He's here to attend a local Greek Independence Day celebration--to give a few remarks, to march in a parade, and, perhaps, to make some political contacts that might help in the 2004 New Hampshire primary. It's an informal gathering, and when I called Dean's press secretary a few days ago, she suggested I just show up as the luncheon was winding down and pull him aside to chat. Which seemed like a perfectly reasonable proposition until a moment ago, when the plan's crucial flaw suddenly became apparent. I have no idea what Howard Dean looks like.

I'm not the only one. Though Dean is the nation's longest-serving Democratic governor, he is almost completely unknown—to the national press, to Democratic party insiders, even to fellow New Englanders like myself. Dean has spent the spring gabbing his way through Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and other key primary states. But except for a recent, well-publicized meeting with actor Martin Sheen, whose TV character on "The West Wing" is a New England governor- turned-president, good buzz has been tough to generate. Comics mock him: "Most people think he makes sausage," Comedy Central's Jon Stewart joked recently. And lately even some fellow Vermonters have been having fun at Dean's expense. When the governor recently accused some state legislators of "living in la-la land" for proposing untenable spending programs, an anonymous note circulated in the state Senate: "Howard Dean is running for president. Who's in la-la land?"

Luckily, back at the luncheon a strategy for recognizing Dean eventually presents itself. Most of the people who celebrate Greek Independence Day are, not surprisingly, Greek-or, at least, Greek-looking. In such a crowd, how hard can it be to spot a guy with a Yankee name like Howard Dean? Sure enough, within a few seconds I hone in on a tall, handsome man with close-cropped hair and nary a Mediterranean feature. When he notices me studying him, he motions to the thirtysomething assistant sitting nearby, who in turn comes to the door. "You must be Jonathan from The New Republic," she smiles. "I'm Kate O'Connor, the governor's political director." Relieved, I follow her to the table, where the tall man extends his hand and begins mumbling something to me. Just as I am making a mental note of Dean's poor communication skills, I piece together the man's sentence: "I'm the governor's driver and security man."

When O'Connor finally introduces me to the real Howard Dean, he looks only somewhat like I imagined. He's not Greek-looking, but at five-foot-nine not exactly tall, either—which seems like just one more reason to be skeptical about his prospects. (Short candidates almost always lose presidential elections.) But once Dean starts talking, it's not so easy to dismiss him. Quite apart from his policy accomplishments, which include erasing Vermont's chronic budget deficits and enacting sweeping health care initiatives, Dean turns out to be a gifted communicator: passionate, intelligent, and brutally candid in an appealing sort of way. When pressed on an issue about which he's still forming an opinion, for example, he'll answer, "I'd give you my ten-point plan, but it's only got about six points right now." And rather than deny that he's an underdog, Dean argues that he can turn it to his advantage—by highlighting his status as the most authentic "outsider" in a Beltway-heavy field that includes senators, the House minority leader, and a former vice president. "People are tired of politicians talking out of every side of their mouths," Dean recently told a reporter from the Rutland Herald and Times Argus. "They want someone out there who can make a statement and stick to it—long shot or not." Of course, lots of candidates claim the "outsider" mantle, but Dean is temperamentally well-suited to it. Indeed, his penchant for blunt honesty has evoked more than one comparison to another politician who ran an outsider's campaign for president: John McCain.

The McCain analogy is useful in another way as well, because it demonstrates how Dean might succeed in 2004 even if he doesn't actually win the nomination. McCain, after all, lost his bid for the presidency. But he had a lasting impact all the same. By demonstrating the popularity of campaign finance reform, McCain forced George W. Bush to embrace the cause—a commitment Bush had to keep as president. It's possible to imagine Dean playing the same role for the Democrats in 2004. Unlike his better-known competitors, he has argued explicitly, even enthusiastically, for repealing part of the Bush tax cut. He has also placed universal health care, beginning with children, at the center of his nascent campaign. Although risky, these proposals could move the political debate back to the issue on which Bush is most vulnerable: his administration's decision to squander Clinton-era surpluses and sacrifice vital government programs in order to give wealthy Americans a tax break. All Dean must do is show that his ideas resonate with voters.

Alas, even this more modest goal may be out of reach. Dean has the personality and the message to pull off such an insurgency, but he may lack one other critical ingredient: time. Under the Democrats' new, shorter primary schedule, the nomination could be settled within a month, leaving an outsider like Dean with no time to introduce himself or his issues to the public. The rationale behind compressing the primary schedule was to strengthen the eventual nominee by sparing him a drawn-out political fight. But in so doing, party officials may have unwittingly undermined one of the primary system's key purposes: to serve as a laboratory of political thought, an opportunity for candidates to experiment with a variety of ideas and see which ones resonate. Particularly given their current stupor, the Democrats badly need this sort of debate. Dean could be the man to start it. But first he would need the chance.

Looking at Dean's youth, it's easy to see where he got his political beliefs. Born in 1948, Dean was the oldest of four sons born to a wealthy stockbroker in the Hamptons. But while Dean seems to have inherited his father's stubbornly conservative beliefs about economics, his social attitudes reflect the liberal times in which he came of age. In 1967 Dean entered Yale, at roughly the same time as Bush—but the two approached the experience very differently. As Nicholas Lemann recalled in a 2000 New Yorker article, during the late '60s Yale was undergoing a radical transformation from an institution reserved for a white, wealthy elite to something closer to a meritocracy—a place that judged people on ability, not pedigree, and actively sought a diverse student body. Unlike Bush, who according to Lemann found these changes threatening, Dean, though very much a Yankee aristocrat himself, embraced the new Yale. Dean especially credits two black freshman-year roommates (from South Carolina and Tennessee, respectively) and a third, white roommate from rural Pennsylvania with opening his eyes to the experiences of minorities, Southerners, and the poor.

Campus politics in those days were dominated by the far left. But Dean was too much his father's son to get in bed with the radicals. "The truth is that the left always made me very suspicious because I instinctively distrust ideologues," Dean says. "I certainly did not support the war, but I was mistrustful of people like Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman and very mistrustful of SDS [Students for a Democratic Society]." (Dean says he showed up for his physical when his draft number came up but was rejected because of a congenital back defect that has bothered him his entire life.) Despite rooming with two black roommates, Dean avoided racial politics, too. As he tells it now, he preferred to show his commitment to civil rights not by staging protests but by volunteering as a tutor in New Haven's inner city. Perhaps this distaste for '60s-era radicalism explains why Dean, despite having majored in political science, eschewed career paths that might logically have led to elected office. Indeed, he spent his first year after Yale "supporting my ski habit" by working in Colorado; then he returned to New York to try his hand at the family business—Wall Street.

But in the early '70s, after a few years on Wall Street, something changed Dean. And that "something" may have been the death of his younger brother, Charles. Unlike his big-brother Howard, Charlie Dean had long eyed a career in politics: At the University of North Carolina he'd worked for civil rights and coordinated a county campaign for George McGovern in 1972. After graduation Charlie and a college buddy embarked on a yearlong trot across the globe—which was going fine until they got to Laos, where a group of Communists accused them of spying for the United States and took them prisoner. The family tried desperately to get him out, but a year later came word that Charlie had been executed.

Dean doesn't talk much about the incident, but it was right around the time of Charlie's murder that he made a life change. Impressed by some friends who had become doctors, Dean started volunteering at the emergency room at St. Elizabeth's Hospital, took night courses at Columbia to satisfy his pre-med requirements, and eventually enrolled at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. After graduation the residency match system landed him in Vermont, where he married a woman he'd met in medical school—Judith Steinberg—and joined her in private practice.

In most other states that probably would have been the end of whatever political aspirations Dean harbored. But Vermont is uniquely suited to governing as a hobby. The state is tiny and nearly every elected official works part-time (governor being one of the exceptions). It's entirely possible to have a full-time job in Burlington while commuting to the state capital of Montpelier, just 40 miles away, for legislative meetings. And that's exactly what Dean did. In 1982 he ran for state legislature and won. In 1986 he ran for lieutenant governor and won again.

Then fate handed Dean's career a critical, if tragic, boost. On a late summer day in 1991 the assistant in Dean's medical office interrupted him while he was administering a routine physical. Montpelier was on the phone: Richard Snelling, the state's Republican governor, had died from a heart attack. Dean recalls finishing the exam before taking care of state business. "I just felt it would be really inconvenient to the patient to come back," Dean says, "and I knew it would be a long time before he could reschedule." Only afterward did he head to Montpelier for a hastily arranged swearing-in ceremony.

Many in Vermont figured this unanticipated promotion would mark the end of Dean's charmed political life. Unlike the popular Snelling, Dean was almost unknown. Vermont was also mired in the deep recession of the early '90s, setting the stage for some particularly bitter budget battles in the state legislature. In order to deal with mounting budget deficits, before his death Snelling had approved a temporary income tax increase slated to expire in 1993. Democrats wanted to extend the tax increase in order to finance additional social spending to help people weather the downturn; Republicans were vehemently opposed, arguing that a higher tax burden would stunt economic growth.

Most people assumed that Dean, a relatively reliable liberal during his years in the state legislature, would side with his party. He didn't. Instead, he sided with Republicans and let the tax increase lapse. Vermont had one of the nation's highest state income taxes, and Dean argued a reduction was essential to pulling the state out of recession--an argument conservatives remember and appreciate even today. "Never once has he succumbed to the temptation to jack up the income tax to screw the rich," says John McClaughry, a Republican who challenged Dean for governor in 1992 and now heads up a conservative think tank, the Ethan Allen Institute. "I wouldn't want to say he's a closet supply-sider, but at least he doesn't completely dismiss the impact of the marginal tax rate on economics, which many liberals do."

Of course, there was another way Dean could have increased state spending in the early '90s. He could have continued to run large deficits, which is just what some Democrats wanted. Again, though, Dean had none of it. He insisted on a balanced budget and has every year since, arguing that deficits are incompatible with responsible leadership. "He told them they'd never be successful as a party because the people did not trust them with their money," Vermont political analyst Peter Freyne told The Christian Science Monitor earlier this year. "He was right: He was the strict schoolteacher who taught the liberal Democrats in this state to be fiscal conservatives and to be proud of it." Dean's tight fiscal management is one reason that Vermont, despite its reputation for wild cultural liberalism, has in recent years earned a business- friendly reputation, which has contributed to the state's strong economy.

But if Dean battled state liberals over the ensuing years, particularly during budget season, he also gave them plenty of reasons to support him. As unwilling as Dean was to raise taxes, he cut them only once, in 1999, and then only moderately. In the late '90s, when the state suddenly had large surpluses on its hands, Dean opposed larger tax cuts and called instead for paying down debt and for onetime public-works expenditures. Over the years Dean won over environmentalists by passing laws restricting the development of open spaces; he impressed feminists by opposing occasional legislative efforts at restricting abortion. Most of all, even as he kept the state's finances sound, Dean doggedly directed what money the state did have to the cause closest to his heart-expanding access to quality health care.

In his family practice, Dean says, he never turned away a patient for inability to pay. But he realized that even in Vermont, where an unusually large proportion of doctors seem to be similarly altruistic, people without insurance avoided going to the doctor except in emergencies, thereby missing out on the routine preventative care that might avert such emergencies in the first place. So almost immediately upon taking office, Dean began pushing for universal health insurance.

At the time, of course, the very same thing was happening in Washington, where Bill Clinton had just become president. Dean shuttled back and forth between Montpelier and Washington, working closely with the Clinton team and championing for Vermont a "managed competition" scheme similar to the one the administration was pushing for the country as a whole. But Dean's initial efforts would prove no more fruitful than the president's. In Vermont, the supporters of universal coverage were sharply divided between those who wanted the government to insure people directly and those, like Dean, who wanted private insurance companies to compete for business under an umbrella of state regulation. In the end, neither proposal got past the legislature; by the time the dream of universal health care had died in Congress, it was dead in Vermont, too.

Vermonters frequently invoke a medical analogy when describing Dean's political instincts: They say he knows when to give up on a dying patient and move on to the next one. So when the fight for universal health insurance in Vermont became futile, Dean set his sights on something more achievable—getting better health care for Vermont's children. Politically, it was a shrewd decision: Children are an inherently sympathetic group and their medical care is relatively inexpensive, consisting mostly of routine exams and vaccinations, rather than the expensive disease management and surgery adults require.

It was in the realm of children's insurance that Dean enacted the two initiatives that today represent his chief legacy. First, under a program Dean copied from Minnesota called Success by Six, Vermont began offering the mother of every newborn an at-home visit, from a local nonprofit or public agency, two weeks after the child's birth. Second, the state vastly expanded its Medicaid program for children (called "Dr. Dynasaur," to seem kid-friendly) so that all children in families with incomes below 300 percent of the poverty line-today, about $50,000 for a family of four-would be eligible for Medicaid coverage. The idea behind the expansion was to serve those families most likely to slip through the insurance safety net: people in low-wage jobs who didn't get insurance from their employers but made too much money to qualify for existing government subsidies.

Today nearly 90 percent of new mothers in Vermont accept the at-home visits—one reason, Dean says, that child abuse rates for children through age six have declined 50 percent. Dr. Dynasaur's results are more impressive still. According to the governor's office, just 4 percent of the state's children are without health insurance, among the lowest rates in the nation. The state's overall uninsured rate, 8 percent, is also among the nation's lowest--in part because Dr. Dynasaur allows adults in families with incomes below 150 percent of the poverty line to "buy into" Medicaid for a small fee. Even taking account of Vermont's small size and relatively low poverty rate, these are substantial achievements, and all the more so because Dean has remained committed to the programs despite rising medical costs and recent budget pressures. Indeed, even those Vermont Democrats who consider Dean too fiscally conservative concede that his devotion to Dr. Dynasaur is genuine and ironclad. "That was his vision, his persuasive capacity, his tenacity," says state Senator Nancy Chard, one of the governor's regular sparring partners on the left. "It's an absolute given in this state that you do not in any way diminish or reduce what Dr. Dynasaur does. We as a state have accepted that obligation. That's Howard Dean. He deserves one hundred percent of the credit for that."

Dean considers his conservative fiscal record and his expansion of health care the hallmarks of his governorship. But the episode that has generated the most national interest concerns a fight he did not pick and that very nearly cost him his job: the debate over gay marriage.

In 1999 the Vermont Supreme Court unanimously ruled that gay couples deserved the same legal rights of marriage—shared employer benefits, inheritances, child custody, etc.—as heterosexual couples. It was, in effect, an ultimatum: If the legislature and governor didn't give gays marriage rights, the court would do so itself. Though none too thrilled about the court's aggressive meddling in the lawmaking process, Dean threw his support behind a compromise—allowing gays to enter into "civil unions" with all the rights of marriage but not the name. When, after a grueling and anguished debate, the legislature passed a civil-union bill in the summer of 2000, Dean signed it. But while Dean hailed the law as "a courageous and powerful statement about who we are in the state of Vermont," he pointedly refused to hold a public signing ceremony, arguing that it might further divide the state.

Even today some supporters of the bill accuse Dean of cowardice, complaining that he signed the measure "in the closet." Peter Shumlin, a Democratic state senator, disagrees. By his account, it was Dean who ultimately pushed reticent legislators to pass the bill: "We went up to the governor and said, 'We need to appoint some commission on how to deal with this court decision and come back next year and pass a bill then.' He looked at us and said, 'This is the right thing to do, and we happen to be at a place in history where we can make it happen. We're not going to run from our responsibility.' ... And he knew the consequences. He knew there would be political fallout, that people would lose their jobs over it; but he knew it was the right thing to do for civil rights."

Dean's assessment of the political risk proved accurate. The Vermont constitution says that to win the general election for governor, you must win an absolute majority of votes. If no candidate gets more than 50 percent, the Senate chooses the governor. Following a particularly vitriolic 2000 campaign, in which a Republican opponent attacked him for being too liberal (for signing the civil-union law) and a third-party challenger accused him of being too conservative (on a variety of issues, including health care), the governor won with just 50.4 percent of the vote. A swing of only 1,300 votes would have tossed the election to the GOP-controlled Senate, which would almost surely have ousted Dean. "Those of us who took an awful lot of crap would like to have proudly stood there [at a public signing ceremony]," says Chard. "But I think he probably made the right decision not to continue the furor over the bill. That was an interesting choice and a political choice. It shows his savvy, which is greater than mine."

Savvy is not the word most political professionals would use to describe Dean's presidential campaign strategy. If elected president, Dean has said, he would repeal those portions of the Bush tax cut that benefit taxpayers making more than $150,000 per year (or couples making more than $300,000) and those portions scheduled to take effect in coming years. It's a controversial proposal: Of the other prospective Democratic candidates, only Joe Lieberman has come close, recommending that Congress freeze the tax cut next year unless the budget deficit is lower. But unlike his prospective competitors, who speak in hypotheticals and squirm whenever talk about the tax cut turns specific, Dean is not the least bit ambiguous about his intentions. In our interview, for example, it was the very first thing he mentioned when I asked about issues. "There is no excuse for us running the kind of deficits we're running," he said. His solution? "Stop the tax cuts right now."

With the money he'd save by rescinding upper-bracket cuts, Dean says he'd free up more than $1 trillion—enough to shore up Social Security by paying down debt; to finance a prescription-drug benefit for senior citizens; to fund the military generously; and, most important, to create a universal health care program for children modeled on Dr. Dynasaur. In the tax cut that so many Democrats consider a political liability, in other words, Dean sees a golden opportunity. In the past, Democrats advocating expansions of government had to raise taxes or cut military spending; now, Dean says, Democrats have an easier solution. "The good thing about the president's tax cut," he told me, "is that 1.6 billion dollars—which should never have passed—funds an awful lot."

There's a reason Dean's better-known rivals haven't proposed something similar: It's a gamble. But there's also some reason to believe Dean's message might resonate. According to a Zogby poll conducted in January, when asked whether or not they favored rolling back the tax cut, respondents split almost evenly. But this ratio shifted dramatically when the tax cut was juxtaposed against other budget priorities. Sixty-nine percent of respondents said they favored rescinding the tax cut and spending the money on education instead. Seventy-one percent said they'd be happier using the money to fund a prescription-drug benefit for seniors. And so on. Nor were these isolated findings. Polls earlier this year by the Los Angeles Times,, and CNN, just to name a few, produced similar results.

Moreover, Dean's juxtaposition of the tax cut and health care spending may prove particularly appealing. Ever since the Clinton health care debacle, which cost Democrats not just their chance to reform the health insurance system but also their long-held House majority, all but the most liberal Democrats have eschewed sweeping health insurance expansions. But with health insurance premiums rising faster than they have since the early '90s (see "Health Scare," TNR, December 24, 2001), anxiety over access to basic health care is once again spreading upward from the poor to the middle class. In March, for example, 56 percent of respondents to a Gallup poll said they "personally worry ... a great deal" about the "availability and affordability of health care." No other issue provoked such concern—not even the possibility of future terrorist attacks in the United States.

Of course, Americans have been known in opinion polls to oppose tax cuts while simultaneously punishing politicians who vote that way. But Dean is well-positioned to make his case. As a family doctor, he's a natural advocate for health care reform. As a governor who balanced budgets without raising income taxes, he can credibly say he is not a chronic tax-and-spender. And as a politician who says things politicians aren't supposed to say, he could win over voters who might not entirely agree with his positions but appreciate his candor. "I'll tell people not what they want to hear," Dean says, "but what they need to hear." Perhaps even more than McCain, Dean's eat-your-vegetables honesty conjures up memories of another surprise insurgency: Paul Tsongas's run in 1992. Like McCain, Tsongas espoused a position unpopular in his own party—the need to emphasize deficit reduction over new spending. Like McCain, Tsongas benefited from seeming more authentic than his party's poll-tested front-runner. And like McCain, Tsongas changed his party without winning the nomination. Although Clinton didn't initially co-opt Tsongas's agenda in quite the way Bush later co-opted McCain's, the popular movement to reduce deficits that Tsongas unleashed lived on in the third-party candidacy of Ross Perot, ultimately forcing Clinton to embrace the fiscal conservatism that came to represent one of his significant political legacies.

For McCain and Tsongas—as well as for insurgents who actually did win their party's nomination, like Jimmy Carter—the catalyst was a win in one of the early, small-state contests where grassroots organizing and hand-to-hand campaigning are as important as television. In all three cases, winning either the Iowa caucuses or the New Hampshire primary allowed these outsiders to gain the kind of media coverage and financial support necessary to compete in the larger, ultimately decisive contests. Dean is explicitly copying these past mavericks, which is why, among other things, he's made five trips to Iowa already.

But Dean faces several major obstacles his predecessors did not. Massachusetts Senator John Kerry's presence in the race pretty much negates any regional advantage Dean might have in New Hampshire—especially since most Granite State voters get their TV news from Boston, not Burlington. It doesn't help that Kerry has millions of dollars to spend on paid television this year for a Senate race in which he is essentially unopposed. Iowa presents its own complications. Because Iowa's contest is a set of caucuses, not a straight primary vote, constituency groups with organizing ability are particularly influential—and none are likely to be of much help to Dean. Dick Gephardt will likely pull in labor if he runs; John Edwards will have the trial lawyers; and Al Gore—barring an Al Sharpton candidacy—should get the civil rights groups. The only two groups that might back Dean are the gay community, which isn't particularly influential among Iowans, and the medical community, which isn't particularly influential among Democrats.

More important, even if Dean could win Iowa or New Hampshire, it probably wouldn't provide him the same boost it has past candidates. Early this year the Democratic National Committee decreed that other states could stage their primaries as early as February 3, 2004—a full five weeks earlier than they were allowed to in 2000. Big states like California and New York, long excluded from a decisive role in the nomination process, are expected to take advantage of the new date, creating a "national primary" that could effectively determine the party nominee. To be competitive in this environment, a candidate will need name recognition well before Democrats in Iowa and New Hampshire ever make their selections. And getting name recognition in the absence of a primary requires the very assets outsiders typically lack: money and staff. As analyst Bill Schneider told The Boston Globe in January, "It's going to help the best- known candidates, and it's going to make it much more difficult for an unknown Democrat to pull a Jimmy Carter."

Indeed, Dean has recruited no big-time political professionals so far, instead putting the campaign in the hands of O'Connor, a trusted chief of staff who's been with him for years but has no experience running a national campaign. And although Dean has fund-raisers planned for the summer, including several in California, he lags far behind the other candidates. As of this spring, Dean's "Fund for a Healthy America" had raised $140,000. By contrast, Edwards had raised more than $1 million for his political action committee, while Lieberman had raised twice that--to say nothing of the huge war chest Kerry is filling for his Senate campaign. For now, Dean must still collect donations the way he collects supporters: one at a time.

Which brings us back to the Greek Independence Day celebration. Ironically, the speeches—the reason Dean is here in the first place—never take place. The event is poorly organized, and, after an hour of people aimlessly milling around the podium, a woman who appears to be one of the coordinators announces that everybody should prepare to leave for the ensuing parade through the streets of Boston's Back Bay. It raises still more doubts about Dean's prospects: Can you imagine, say, Gephardt's or Gore's handlers dragging their man to a speaking engagement hundreds of miles away, only to find there is no actual speaking?

But Dean is unfazed. With an "honored guest" ribbon draped from shoulder to waist, Dean briskly marches along the downtown Boston parade route, then leads his newfound entourage (O'Connor, the security aide, and me) back from the Public Garden to Copley Square. Even as we walk among the crowd, not a soul seems to recognize him. Finally, I ask the governor whether this whole exercise hasn't been a waste of his time. "It was very successful," he assures me with a cocked smile. "One man back there told me he was definitely voting for me—when I run for mayor again." It's a great line, emblematic of the qualities that could make Howard Dean an important voice in the 2004 Democratic presidential primary. If only his party wanted it heard.

This article originally ran in the July 1, 2002 issue of the magazine.