With the endorsement of Al Gore, the People's Choice for President in 2000, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean is looking more like next year's Democratic nominee for president. The Democrats could do worse -- and they still might.
The two candidates whose views most closely reflect those of The Progressive Populist are US Reps. Dick Gephardt and Dennis Kucinich. We think Gephardt, the former House Minority Leader, erred when he supported George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq. Kucinich, co-chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, has been a consistent critic of the war and the Bush administration's efforts to set aside civil liberties in the war on terror. His universal health program and his defense of worker and consumer rights also appeal to us.
We would be pleased if the Democratic Party nominated Kucinich, Gephardt, Dean or Sen. John Kerry. John Edwards talks a good spiel but after only one term in the Senate we think a White House run is premature. Wesley Clark is an attractive candidate but we're still not sure where the retired general stands. But as we've said before, any of the Democratic candidates -- including former Sen. Carole Moseley Braun, Sen. Joe Lieberman and Rev. Al Sharpton -- would be preferable to a second term of George W. Bush.
When it comes to agriculture and rural issues, Dean, Gephardt, Kerry, Kucinich, Edwards and even Clark generally conform with progressive populist principles. They largely agree on the need to fund conservation programs; they like ethanol and biodiesel to promote corn and soybeans. They recognize the need to upgrade rural infrastructure and promote universal broadband Internet access. They talk about the need to develop value-added manufacturing jobs in rural areas. They are serious candidates who have addressed rural issues. Lieberman's Agenda for America apparently does not include rural America. Neither does Sharpton nor Braun, at least if their websites reflect their positions.
Kucinich would cancel NAFTA and the World Trade Organization, replacing them with bilateral trade agreements that would benefit family farmers and workers while protecting the health of communities and the environment. He would support collective bargaining for farmers and would enforce anti-trust laws to break up monopolies and concentrated markets. He would advocate "responsible farm-sector biotechnology," with an indemnity fund, financed by the corporations responsible for the technology, for farmers who incur losses caused by genetically modified organisms (GMOs). He would also require labeling of GMO seeds and food.
Gephardt, who co-authored the 2002 farm bill with Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, would introduce a sweeping antitrust initiative, including a ban on meatpackers owning and controlling livestock production. He would overhaul ag subsidies to target them at family farmers. He would require corporate hog lots and other confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) to solve their environmental problems without taxpayer subsidies or exemptions from clean air and clean water laws. He proposes a Bill of Rights for Contract Farmers, who under current law have few rights and little recourse to the demands of monopolies.
Dean also promotes mandatory country-of-origin labeling that the Bush administration has been delaying. He would regulate CAFOs and is concerned with the concentration of food production among a few corporations. "We also need a Justice Department that will enforce antitrust laws, instead of spying on our public libraries," Dean said.
Dean has a history with farmers in Vermont, where dairies account for 70% of the gross state product. The regional program to provide direct payments from processors to producers helped save many dairy farmers. "Our program made sure that the money consumers paid went directly to farmers and that our farmers' hard work wouldn't go unrewarded," he said.
Remember that going into the campaign, Kerry and Gephardt appeared to be the men to beat. Well, they appear well on their way to being beaten. Both men have excellent resumes and commendable positions on the issues but they have failed to generate much excitement in the field, while Dean has. If you can't generate heat among partisans in the primaries, what chance will you have in the general election?
But if you agree with Kucinich, Gephardt or another candidate on the issues, you don't owe the Democratic Party any apologies for supporting your candidate in the primaries. Don't feel a need to fall in line behind Dean or any other presumptive favorite just yet. Make him (or her) earn the nomination. It won't do the party any good to nominate an untested candidate who then falls apart in the general election.
One of Dean's attractive features is the way he unsettles the party hacks who are concerned that his opposition to the Iraq invasion and his call to repeal Bush's tax cuts for the rich could hurt the party's chances of winning back the White House and Congress. But Dean has built a formidable grassroots organization with the Internet and the campaign trail.
Dean also has been talking a populist line about the need to protect communities against unaccountable corporations. "We need somebody to mitigate the power of corporations," he said in a Dec. 1 appearance on Hardball with Chris Matthews. "Corporations are not bad things. They're neither good nor bad. But the problem is, they're a bad influence on society if they get too much power, because their basic interest is the bottom line."
He told Matthews he would appoint people to the Federal Communications Commission who would break up large media enterprises. "I would say that there is too much penetration by single corporations in media markets all over this country. We need locally-owned radio stations. ... What I'm going to do is appoint people to the FCC that believe democracy depends on getting information from all portions of the political spectrum, not just one."
If Dean wins in Iowa Jan. 19 and New Hampshire Jan. 27 -- and polls in both states encourage him -- the next big test will be Feb. 3, when primaries in Arizona, Delaware, South Carolina, Missouri and Oklahoma and caucuses in New Mexico and North Dakota will determine whether there will be a race to the convention July 26-29 in Boston.
Dean took some heat when his rivals misconstrued his statement that he wanted to be the candidate for whites who drive pickups with Confederate flags, but he was right in believing that the Democratic Party cannot afford to write off Southern whites. Dean doesn't plan to let Karl Rove set the agenda in a 2004 replay of the GOP "Southern Strategy" of purposely dividing the country over "guns, God and gays" and stirring up racial prejudices to win elections. "It's time we had a new politics in America -- a politics that refuses to pander to our lowest prejudices," but instead moves toward harmony on issues of "common interest" such as education and jobs, Dean said.
Dean also has broadened his campaign to help Democratic Congress members in districts targeted by the GOP. In one day in early December, after getting a mass email from the Dean campaign asking them to help US Rep. Leonard Boswell's re-election campaign, Dean supporters pledged $51,557 for the Iowa Democrat, even though Boswell remained neutral in the presidential race. The fund raising for Boswell was an experiment that the campaign plans to continue in an effort to win back Congress, Dean campaign manager Joe Trippi said.
Democrats should follow Dean's lead and take the fight to the GOP. Tie the Medicare deform around the necks of Bush, House Speaker Dennis Hastert, Majority Leader Tom DeLay, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and their congressional followers. Drag them through the streets with it. If government is an unpopular cause nowadays, we can't believe voters have any greater love for insurance and pharmaceutical companies that will be enriched by Bush's Medicare bill. If Democrats can't make that case, they don't deserve to govern. -- JMC