Middlebury, Vt.

Life in the middle of Vermont.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Come Back, Howard Dean

With his stinging defeat at the hands of the Vermont Legislature, which last week overrode his veto of gay marriage, Gov. Jim Douglas has got to be wondering if this is just a temporary setback -- or the beginning of the end of his political career.

Douglas squeaked into office in 2002 thanks to the stubbornness of the Progressive Party, which ran its own gubernatorial candidate and split the liberal vote – giving Douglas the governor’s seat even though he fell short of a majority.

The regressive Progressives, proving they’d learned nothing about the folly of being a third party in statewide elections, pulled the same move in last year’s election.

But by then Douglas had become such a steady vote-getter that Democrat Gaye Symington and Progressive Anthony Pollina couldn’t even get 45% of the vote between them.

Douglas has faced increasingly large Democratic majorities in the Legislature. In the Senate, Republicans are nearly as hard to find as the Lake Champlain Monster.

But the governor has used his veto pen to great effect. He’s cut down legislation approved by the Legislature that would have improved energy conservation, widened access to healthcare, forced the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant to plan adequately for its decommissioning, and placed stricter donation limits on political fundraising.

As recently as last summer Douglas could brag, to his Republican cohorts at the national convention that gave us Sarah Palin, that while he was New England’s only Republican governor, Democrats had never overridden one of his vetoes.

He can’t make that claim anymore.

With this precedent, as the Legislature grows increasingly Democratic and increasingly liberal, the governor has got to feel just a little more vulnerable.

It remains to be seen whether Democrats can field a gubernatorial candidate with enough name recognition, personal popularity and fundraising ability to defeat Douglas. Vermont may be among the most liberal of states, but the voters still like Douglas. And until his veto of marriage equality, the canny governor had rarely put himself in a position to be steamrollered by an angry opposition.

In that sense, the Legislature did him a favor.

If the House and Senate had not been able to overcome his veto of marriage equality, there would have been a small army of gay-marriage supporters ready to defeat him next year. But the anger that marriage-equality supporters now rightly feel toward Douglas will have dissipated by next year’s election season.

So even if the Progressives finally wise up and stay out of the governor’s race, is there any chance the Democrats can muster a candidate with a snowball’s chance in hell of defeating Douglas?

Secretary of State Deb Markowitz seems likely to run, and State Sen. Doug Racine – who would have been governor but for the Progressives’ intervention in 2002 – has already said he’s running.

But what if the Dems could find a candidate who’s not just popular and well known in Vermont, but who’s also known on the national stage? Someone who has enormous name recognition, leadership experience at the national party level, and the political savvy to rally Democrats and independents of all stripes?

Better yet, what if that candidate had already been a successful Vermont governor?

Enter, stage left, the Hon. Howard Dean.

Dean capped his successful run as Vermont’s governor with a groundbreaking presidential campaign that gave the national Democratic Party some backbone on Iraq, the environment and other core issues. His campaign pioneered electronic, online campaigning that proved critical to Barack Obama’s ascendancy eight years later.

As the surprise chairman of the national Democratic Party, Dean staked his reputation on remaking the party into a 50-state force. That brave effort was rewarded with a Democratic president and senatorial victories in states as unlikely as Montana and Alaska, as well as domination of the statehouses.

But the never-bashful Dean ran afoul of several powerful Democrats, most notably Rahm Emmanuel, who tangled repeatedly with Dean over issues of strategic and personality.

So when it came time to find someone to lead the charge on healthcare reform as Secretary of health & Human Services – especially after nominee Tom Daschle was buried by his unpaid income tax -- Dean seemed a logical choice.

But with Emmanuel now White House chief of staff, Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sibelius got the nod instead. (After which it was quickly revealed she had her own tax problems. Apparently some Democratic nominees believe paying your full share is for suckers. But I digress.)

The irrepressible Dean is now a part-time commentator for CNBC. He spends the rest of his time barnstorming the country for healthcare reform.

Fun stuff, I’m sure, for a guy who is accustomed to the adrenaline of hearing thousands of admirers scream his name.

But -- and indulge me in this, I realize it’s just a dream – what if HoJo decided he wanted to come home again?

A seemingly silly idea at first blush. I’ll grant you that. That’s certainly what I thought when Middlebury’s Victor Nuovo suggested it to me.

But then I mused, well – why not?

The state has made an international reputation for its progressive politics. Maybe we’re just getting started.

First on civil unions and now on gay marriage, Vermont has led the way on 21st-century civil rights. Why stop now?

Throughout American history the states have been the laboratories of democracy. From welfare reform to clean-air legislation, they’ve led the way to innovative solutions in recent years.

Perhaps the time is ripe for tiny Vermont to continue to show the way.
I’d set out the agenda for Dean Redux with exactly the legislation that was murdered by Douglas’s veto pen.

The financial set-asides to close Vermont Yankee – collapsing cooling tower and all – are woefully underfunded. We’ll need every cent of it and more to shut down this aging dinosaur. Douglas won’t hear of it. Dean could make it happen and lead the way to making Vermont a leader in wind power.

Climate change isn’t just a threat to Vermont’s maple syrup and ski industries. It’s a looming global catastrophe. One good place to start addressing the issue is in providing support for better energy conservation.

And wouldn’t you know it, conservation efforts were at the heart of legislation Douglas tossed in the dumper a couple years ago.

And then there is healthcare.

Dean was way ahead of the curve on this one as governor. He expanded healthcare for children to make it nearly universal in Vermont. And before he ran for president, you got the feeling he was just getting started on an issue that he knows so well, both as a physician and a politician.

Why would a man who’s been living so large “waste” his time in little ol’ Vermont?
“Small P” progressives have a lot of ideas about how to address the multiple crises that face Americans. And heaven knows the Republicans have pretty much run out of ideas beyond waving teabags and calling Obama a socialist.

But in even the most liberal of the large states, progressives face big obstacles in turning their agenda into reality.

Not so in Vermont. Save for one man and his veto pen, the doors are wide open to the kind of groundbreaking programs that brought America Social Security, Medicare and MediCal, workplace safety, the 40-hour work week, and a cleaner, more diverse environment.

This time around, Vermont could show the way to an abundant life after peak oil; true regeneration of our communities through local food production; sustainable healthcare for all; and the best adaptations to deal with our rapidly heating climate and all that portends.

Jerry Brown went from being governor of California and Linda Ronstadt’s consort in her prime to being the mayor of lowly Oakland.

So will Howard Dean give up the talking-head gig, the endless plane rides from one speech to the next, and decide to come home, roll up his shirtsleeves and show the world what can be done?

Probably not. But he’s surprised us all before. And we can always dream.

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