Howard Dean was six-term governor of Vermont, ran for President in 2004, and served as the head of the Democratic National Committee from February 2005 to January 2009. During this period he became known for the "50-State Strategy," that the party should spend money in all states rather than merely battleground states (the latter position favored by now-White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel). He will be speaking at the 92nd Street Y on Thursday, September 24th, discussing his new book Howard Dean's Prescription For Real Health Care Reform. The book is as he advertises it, a thin (133 pages), lucid explanation of the health care issues most relevant to the legislation currently before Congress. Dean himself is a medical doctor, and is now one of the most vocal and insistent advocates for health care legislation, news and information about which can be found at his website www.standwithdrdean.com.
Our readers will be familiar with your work as Governor of Vermont and as head of the Democratic National Committee. Tell us what you've been doing for the past year since you resigned from the DNC. Well I didn't resign, my term expired, but I am working part time for Democracy for America, my old campaign organization. I am working part-time for an organization called McKenna, Long, and Aldrich, which is a law firm in Washington. I work for CNBC, and then I have a whole bunch of other projects that I'm doing.
And what brings you to New York? Well, the big thing I'm trying to do is push the book. I'm doing some book signings. I'm doing some speeches, a speech at the Y on Thursday. So I'm very anxious to get folks out and get people reading the book so we can get together some health care.
You have a little bit of history with New York City, and I'll just ask you about that before we go on to other things. What's your link to New York City in your past? I was born in New York City. I went to elementary school in New York City.
Where was that? A place called the Browning School.
Sure. I used to teach at St. Davids. Really? Oh my goodness.
Keep going. And then I went to medical school here.
At Albert Einstein. Yup. And I also worked on Wall St for two years, with a small company that has long since been swallowed up.
But you describe yourself as 'not an urban person,' I remember. No, I'm not really. Our real legal home has always been East Hampton, Long Island. Actually my family goes way back in the 1600s there, and my grandfather was Mayor of the island of North Haven. Everybody grew up there. So I'm really more of a former resident of Eastern Long Island than I am of New York.
First of all, you were the DNC chair during a very good time for the Democratic Party, when the Party gained control of the White House, the House and the Senate. Obviously there were a lot of contributing factors. What do you think was your specific contribution? My, our, contribution—it was never me, it was always us, because it was a great team - was to change the paradigm, to get Democrats to think about running as Democrats and not as Republican-lite. And also, to be everywhere. To be in all parts of of the country.
The so-called "Fifty State Strategy." Exactly.
That seems to have played a pretty big role in the previous election, no? Well it did. Since 2006, we've been in all 50 states and had staff in all 50 states. We really made a big effort to reach out to people, not to just take them for granted, not to assume that we can't win.
And Obama ended up winning states like North Carolina, and nearly winning Montana. Well, obviously, we had a great candidate, but we had also put in some infrastructure. And I'm very hopeful we're going to win Texas in 2012.
That would be impressive. It would be, but we've made some big headway, and I think we can continue to do that.
One place where Democratic leadership does not appear to be particularly strong, unexpectedly, is in New York. We have an unpopular Democratic governor - there are reports that President Obama has asked him not to run for election in 2010. First of all, do you believe Obama said that? No, but something may well have come out of the White House. I'd be very surprised if Obama said it.
Meaning it came from someone like Rahm Emanuel? Well who knows. I try not to speculate on Washington politics.
Do you agree with the general idea? That Paterson should not run? Oh I personally like David Paterson a great deal. I would consider him a very good friend. He's terrific, he's a wonderful human being, and it's impossible for me to be objective about David. I really like him a lot.
Sure, but do you think he's a good candidate? Yes.
Down to the city, we haven't had a democratic mayor in 16 years, and it seems like that may soon be twenty years. What do you think are the Democratic chances this fall? I think that Thompson's a great guy, I hope he wins. But when you're running against somebody who doesn't mind spending 80 million dollars on an election, it's tough.
What do you think it would take to unseat someone like that? Term limits.
That's a very good answer. And what do you do if your money and political power allows you to change term limit laws? Well, I don't think that will happen a second time.
Don't you think the same conditions could recur? I think it's unlikely. It's not every day that billionaires run for mayor.
Do you think there's something wrong with Democratic party politics in NYC that we have so few charismatic citywide and statewide figures emerging? I don't know that you have so few charismatic leaders. It's easy to say that when you don't have the office. They used to go on nationally within the Democratic party all the time. People would run in the primary and they would call them the seven dwarfs like they did in 1988, or something else. Obviously, when you're running against an incumbent, the incumbent always looks like the hundred-pound gorilla, which they are. So I think the Democratic party in New York is incredibly vibrant. Obviously there are a few people who we'd prefer not to have around, such as the people involved in the farce in the State Senate which certainly didn't help our chances. But the law enforcement agencies may take care of that.
Do you have any names you can drop as people you think are particularly promising future leaders in New York City? That's one of the things your group has been working on, developing new leadership. Yes but I try not to get into that, because as I've discovered, when I stuck my foot in a City Council race, if you mention one you have to mention all, and I'd have to have the phonebook brought with me.
That's very politic of you. So let's get on to healthcare. Your new book is Howard Dean's Prescription for Real Health Care Reform. First of all is this prescription your own or is this more or less identical with legislation currently in Congress? Well, it's similar. It's based partly on the plan that I put forth in 2004, and very much based on Obama's plan that he had during the campaign. His plan was really an excellent plan, and I go into that in great detail in the book. The book is a lot of fun. First of all, it's plain English. Second of all, it's co-written by two people from the Center for American Progress who know a huge number of details about health care and could fact-check it all. And third of all, it's a great resource book at 133 pages, where it doesn't just tell you about what's going on here, it tells you how other countries' health care systems work, and how to contact your congresspeople to get them to do what you want.
Are there any things which you think your book asks for that don't seem to be on the table right now in Washington? Well one thing that's not on the table which I clearly admit is that I think we ought to pay for it using a carbon tax. It's much simpler. And as you know it's still not impossible. They're getting all twisted up now around how to pay for the thing. A carbon tax is much easier. I think cap-and-trade is in trouble in the Senate and a carbon tax would have the same effect as cap-and-trade, and would also be able to draw off a lot of revenues for health care.
Do you think that Obama is the kind of person who would tackle two giant things at once? Health care reform and climate change? He already has, the climate change bill has already gone through the House with cap-and-trade, and he has made it very clear that that's up next.
Right, but not with a carbon tax? Yes, but I'm not going to get into a critique of everything the administration doesn't do: except health care reform without a public option. You know without a public option it's really a waste of money.
Why would it be waste of money? Because we're basically putting $60 billion dollars a year into the system we already have which got us to where we are today.
And it would require people to have health insurance, but that would allow companies to charge as much as they wanted because they would have a captive audience? Yeah, exactly. I mean, if they don't pass that with a public option, it's an extremely foolish bill. Massachusetts is proof. Massachusetts has got something called universal access, which is wonderful. There are no cost controls of any kind.
And what have been the results there? Great coverage and the most expensive rates in the country.
Democrats have the necessary numerical majorities. What or who would stop a straight party-line vote to make this happen? Well as you know there are a lot of people in our party, well not a lot, some people in our party who are very much beholden to the health insurance industry, and that's obviously a problem.
Are there someone whose arms you're twisting? I know on your website Mary Landrieu comes in for some pressure. That's not my website. That's the Democracy for America website, I'm just a consultant to them. I generally have not gone after other Democrats. Which isn't to say that I won't. We'll have to see how they all vote. Right now I'm giving everybody the benefit of the doubt and hoping that they're going to do the right thing in the end.
Well that's very sweet of you. You know, though, you have a pugnacious reputation. Yes, I do. It's well-earned, I might add.
Do you think it will come down to a straight party line vote? Yes. I don't believe we'll get any Republican votes. Possibly one. But let me just say, a vast majority of Americans - and Democrats - want a public option. I believe that since the Democrats are going to write the bill and Republicans have signed out and just decided not to do anything about it, and since a majority of the majority party wants a public option, we're going to have a public option. I can't tell you what form it will have, but I have my ideas, which I'm not going to share with you.
Obama has certainly used the language of a "unifying approach," being conciliatory, working with both parties, and yet that doesn't seem to have resulted in any cooperation from the other side. Why do you think that is? Because I think they've made the calculation they made in 1994, that "if we can take this bill down we can take down Obama's presidency." That's what their goal is. They don't give a damn about health insurance. Frankly, they don't give that much of a damn about their country. Their party has come first for the last eight years.
Do you think that Obama should start changing his approach? And try a more aggressive one? I think he already is.
The conciliatory approach just can't work with Washington currently? Right, and I think that Washington is always way behind where the American people are. I think the American people really would like bipartisanship and I think the President has done the right thing by trying to get it. But it clearly isn't going to happen, and we have to have a bill - for the sake of the country.
One of the points of your book is that health care reform is beneficial and maybe even necessary for American business to stay competitive. Why is it that no pro-business Republicans seem to agree with that? Republicans are trying to kill the bill. They're not interested in the merits of the bill for discussion. If they were, it would be a better bill, but they're not. They're interested in killing the bill so they can kill the bill. It's all political on the Republican side. There's no substance on the Republican side. It's just politics. As was obvious with the summer recess, the people negotiating with Baucus just kept backing away, that's what they're doing these days, the Republicans can't take yes for an answer.
Do you think that there are no Republicans in the senate who will cooperate at all? I think there's one possibly, Olympia Snowe.
If you were in charge of passing this health care legislation, is there anything you would do differently from what Obama has done so far? No, I think he's done a great job so far. He's tried to be bipartisan; that's what the American people want, and now he's just got to deliver a really good bill.
Thank you for speaking with Gothamist. Thank you.