By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 20, 2009
POLAND SPRING, Maine -- Former Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean is emerging as a thorn in the side of a White House that effectively swept him out of Washington, regularly challenging President Obama and Congress as he crisscrosses the country preaching his progressive vision for universal health care.
Although he is lending voice and brand to the liberal cause in the intraparty health-care debate, Dean hardly considers himself a spoiler. Rather, he sees his role as fighting for progressive values, asserting again and again that health-care reform without a government-run insurance option is hardly reform at all.
When he visited this tranquil corner of New England last weekend, Dean warned that if Democratic leaders abandon the "public option," they surrender their principles to politics.
"The worst thing that could happen is to pass a bill without a public option," he told about 200 union workers and Democratic volunteers in a fiery speech at a pep rally and picnic here Sunday. "Then we'd put 60 billion new dollars a year into the health insurance industry that is busy taking away your health insurance when you need it most, stopping you from getting health insurance, taking it away if you lose a job and not giving it back to you if you get it back."
"We all voted for change we can believe in. If we don't get it, we'll get some more change in 2010," Dean roared, the crowd applauding between bites of hamburgers, hot dogs and macaroni salad.'We've Got to Get It Done'
In a wide-ranging interview Sunday on his way to the rally, Dean said he believes his appearances, many of which are organized by the Service Employees International Union, help support Obama's stated preference for a publicly financed insurance option.
"I think Obama's plan is very good," said Dean, a former physician who has made health care a key focus of his political career. "In fact, I think it's the most practical, most likely-to-succeed plan I've seen in 30 years, and we've got to get it done. This is the time."
"Any bill is not going to be a victory," Dean added, noting that he considers one without a public option a "terrible waste of money. . . . The fiscal conservative side of me is saying, 'Oh my God, what are we doing here?' "
But in his appearances, which are not coordinated with the administration, Dean is helping to fuel what could become a calamity for the White House.
"What Howard is doing is principled but destructive," said a Democratic strategist and former Dean adviser who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the intraparty debate. "If health-care reform goes down because of the public option, it's going to be the liberals that bring it down, the Democrats doing it to themselves."
Dean, 60, has become a politician without an office. Seven months removed from the DNC chairmanship and seven years away from being governor of Vermont, he appears to enjoy the freedom to speak his piece. And on this day, he did not appear concerned about the potential consequences for Obama.
"This vote is not about Democrats versus Republicans and conservatives and liberals and all that stuff," Dean said, his voice growing louder and his cadence faster. "This is about whether you're going to vote for the people who donated to your campaigns -- the health insurance industry -- or you're going to vote for the people who pay your salary. And we're going to be watching, because there are going to be 535 people casting that vote."Free to Speak Out
These days, Dean moves without the trappings of Washington -- or even of Montpelier, the Vermont capital. He traveled to Maine alone, flying commercial from Ohio, where he had spoken the day before. His flight got in late, and he checked into an Embassy Suites at the Portland airport, but despite being a "diamond" member of the chain's frequent-guest program, Dean was stuck with a room that reeked of cigarette smoke.
In the morning, for the 40-minute drive to Poland Spring, Dean rode not in a Town Car but in a Toyota Prius driven by a local Democratic activist. "I've cursed the stimulus package more than once as I've been trying to drive in various places," Dean joked from the front seat as the car meandered past orange construction cones.
Progressive Democrats in Congress, and the volunteer activists who helped put them there, revolted this week over comments from top administration officials that Obama was willing to give up a public insurance option to strike a deal with Congress. Some are frustrated after working for years to help Democrats win back the White House and big majorities in Congress.
"They are like, 'What's the fruit of our labor?' " said Joe Trippi, a Democratic strategist who managed Dean's 2004 upstart presidential campaign but has publicly feuded with him since. "Howard's giving that voice. . . . He's definitely speaking out for a legitimate, sizable portion of rank-and-file progressives."
On Sunday at the Androscoggin County Democrats picnic, many showed their displeasure with any health-care deal that does not preserve a public option.
"I would like to see single-payer health care in this country," said Randy Huber, 64, a retired state government worker from Canaan. "To me, the public option is only a start."
Marianne von Nordeck, 29, a labor organizer from Portland, added: "We think real reform means a public option, and [Dean] has the freedom to get up there and advocate with us."'No More Compromises'
Dean received a hero's welcome when he addressed hundreds of progressive bloggers last week at the Netroots Nation convention in Pittsburgh. He was their favored messenger in 2004, when his innovative campaign fueled the rise of the "Net roots" in the Democratic Party. Now, five years later, Dean is speaking for them again.
"The president has put together the best health-care [proposal] I've ever seen," Dean said. But, he added, the public option itself is a compromise between liberals who supported a government-run single-payer system and moderates. "We have already made our compromise, and there will be no more compromises in this bill."
Asked in the interview whether he sees himself as a spokesman for the progressive wing of the party, the man who ran for president saying that he represented the "Democratic wing of the Democratic Party" replied, "I don't spend a lot of time seeing myself in general."A Matter of Perspective
Dean, who was a family doctor for two decades, has a unique perspective on the issue. In 1991, then-Lt. Gov. Dean was examining a patient when he received a call telling him the governor had died and that he would take over. As governor, he helped pass laws ensuring near-universal coverage for residents younger than 25.
"Health care was the primary driver of him getting into politics a long time ago," said his brother, Jim Dean, who chairs the Democracy for America political action committee. "He's very committed to getting health care for everybody. He tried it nine ways, sideways, here and angled a way to do it for kids. But he really views this as being a core issue for him."
What Dean is selling is his latest book, or at least the proposal outlined in it. "Not to shill for my own book, but if you have $12.99 or whatever it is to spare, 'Howard Dean's Prescription for Real Healthcare Reform' actually explains all this in plain English in about 130 pages, and you can get through it in a good afternoon," he told the Poland Spring crowd.'He Didn't Walk Away'
As DNC chairman, Dean campaigned hard for Obama, and former aides said he was interested in working for the administration, perhaps as health and human services secretary. Asked if he would rather be in Washington, Dean demurred but did not hesitate to tout his credentials. "I know this stuff from a public policy point of view pretty well inside out," Dean said, "and I've also got a reasonably good political sense."
"I think Howard Dean would've loved to have been in the room hashing out health-care reform, whatever the role," Trippi said. "I think he would've relished that. He's passionate, he's a doctor, he knows it. But, look, that wasn't in the cards, and to his credit he didn't walk away. He's leading the charge on issues he cares about."