INTERVIEW: Gov. Howard Dean talks about gun control, sequester and more

This past week, I spoke to former Governor Howard Dean on a wide range of topics. My chief interest was to get his impressions about current gun control measures being considered in Congress. During his run for governor in Vermont, Gov. Dean received high ratings from the NRA. Yet, recently, he has been highly critical of that group, saying that they are “populated by crazy people”.

It’s also the tenth anniversary of the Iraq War and, at a time when there was nearly unanimous support for that war, Gov. Dean was one of the most outspoken opponents. Finally, Gov. has come out in favor of the sequester so I wanted to ask him more about that.

Enjoy.


[Photo credits: Anne C. Savage, special to Eclectablog]

What are you engaged in these days? Are you involved in anything in particular that folks would want to know about?
I’m doing a ton of stuff. A lot of democracy work abroad, in southern Europe mostly — Ukraine and places like that. A lot of work for Democracy for America. I work part-time for a law firm. I teach at Yale and Hofstra.

I actually got an email from you supporting some candidates, too.
I dare say!

One of the reasons I really wanted to talk to you today was gun law reform; where that’s at now, where you see it going and what you see as the future for that. It seems like the time is ripe right now for us to get something done.
Well, I’m worried about the House. I think that Boehner won’t want to have his members vote on anything. You know they’re skewed so far to the right that I think he’s going to be fearful that even something as minimal as complete background checks that are favored by a huge number of, not only the American people but the NRA itself. I think they’re even too timid to do that. But, we’ll see. You can hope.

I noticed that this week Colorado passed some legislation at the state level. Do you see state-level action being in lieu of or in addition to what’s happening at the federal level?
Well, actually I think it’s “in addition to” but you do need a federal background check. You need a federal database and that’s what we really ought to have. We ought to know who owns guns. That’s all.

It seems to me that we have to register for some of the more simple things in life so it’s not really that big of a step.
No, I don’t think so, either.

What about things like Diane Feinstein’s assault weapons ban legislation. That didn’t seem to me like it had much chance of being passed. Do you think that approach has merit?
My guess is that they’ll run into some trouble on that, though Leahy’s promised to vote for it in Committee and that’s a big deal. So I have some hope that they may actually pass out of the Judiciary Committee but I think it’ll be tougher to get a vote on the Senate floor.

[Gov. Dean was correct about this and the Judiciary Committee DID pass this bill out of committee along party lines.]

You know, the NRA, even though they are way out of step of where the American people are, are still a powerful group inside Washington. They’ve got lots of money and they can scare a lot of, a significant number of Americans even though it’s not a majority.

You had a pretty positive rating from them didn’t you? Weren’t you endorsed by the NRA when you ran for governor?
Well, first of all, we don’t have any gun control in Vermont because we don’t really need much. I mean, this is a pretty rural state and our NRA members aren’t nuts like they are in Washington, D.C.

So you’re making a distinction between the lay people, if you will, and the people that run the NRA.
Yeah, there really is. These guys are foaming at the mouth just to raise money. The average Vermonter that owns a gun is not a crackpot. They’re just a deer hunter. They don’t need an AK47 to shoot a deer and they don’t care about that stuff, in general. There are some that do, of course, but most of them just want to be left in peace. So, we never had any significant gun legislation up here because nobody felt much need for it. And that’s still true today.

I’m always amused by all this stuff over “Conceal and Carry” laws. We just don’t have any laws that apply to any of that. We used to have a legislator that would walk into the House with a gun ankle just because he could but there are not many people like that because people are pretty sensible.

It’s provocative. It almost seem intentionally provocative.
Yeah, it does.

As far as what’s happening now goes, do you expect the NRA to continue to fight anything that happens?
I do because that’s how they raise money. The more ridiculous a position they take, the more money they can raise from the relatively small minority that just foam at the mouth on this issue. There are a lot of groups on both the left and the right that fundraise that way but it’s not terribly good for public policy.

So, your fear is that House Speaker Boehner won’t even let this come to a vote?
Well, that’s my fear. The American people are so much in favor of background checks but it’s a calculated gamble on his part. What the Republicans are doing is just perpetuating this view among Americans that they’re just way out of touch. They don’t like women. They don’t like members of minority groups. They don’t like immigrants. They don’t like gays. They don’t like Muslims. They are not many people they do like! So, I think that kind of contributes to the scariness that’s part of their image. But the problem is that the way the districts are drawn, there are some districts where that kind of stuff plays well.

It’s a problem for the Republican majority because, for example, if they’re trying to get anywhere with suburban voters, I think they idea that they’re going to allow people to take guns into bars and churches is not something that’s in the mainstream of most of the voters that they’d like to win back. So, Boehner’s got a problem here.


From l-r: Former Congressman Mark Schauer, Ann Arbor Mayor John Hieftje, Governor Howard Dean, Congressman Gary Peters, Dean of the House Congressmand John Dingell

I’m going to change gears here now, if you don’t mind. We just had the 10-year anniversary of the Iraq War and you were one of the early outspoken opponents against that war. How do you see where we are today?
I think it was probably the biggest foreign policy blunder in the history of the United States including Vietnam which is saying something since I came of age during that period. But, if you look at results, the result of the Vietnam War was that 59,000 Americans died in direct combat and, of course, today Vietnam is a communist nation.

The result of the Iraq debacle is that we’ve made Iran into a much stronger country — and that really IS a dangerous country, they essentially run Iraq — and there is still tremendous sectarian strife. I still stand by a prediction that I made ten years ago which is that Iraq is basically going to break up as a result of this.

I don’t think that the sectarian violence that [Iraq Prime Minister Nouri] al-Maliki and Iran are pushing is going to enable the country to stay together. They’ve really become agents for the Iranians and we did that. You can say all you want about how horrible Saddam Hussein was, and he was horrible, but we’ve created a much situation for the United States and a lot of other people in the Middle East.

We had really sort of contained him at that point so that’s what was really puzzling for me…
Yeah, it was really just a gross foreign policy blunder put together by a bunch of extremely misguided people.

And now we’ve got Jeb Bush telling us that there’s no such thing as “Bush baggage” that he has to worry about.
Well, we’re going to find out about that if he runs!

Do you think if he runs he’ll surround himself with the same sort of people that his brother and his father did?
No, I don’t think so but you never know. I’m sure that’s the question that will be raised by the opposition.

Looking at Washington and what’s happening there, you came out saying that you think that the sequester wasn’t necessarily a bad idea and perhaps the only way we can get some military cuts. Are you still feeling that way about things now that the sequester has gone into effect?
I am. I mean the House, of course, added some of it back, but I don’t think the Senate will allow that to happen. Look, the military has gotten enormous. They don’t ever cut it and they just keep adding to it. The Congress gives the military stuff the military doesn’t even want. And it was never going to get cut by either the Democrats or the Republicans if they had to vote on the cuts. So, I see this as … you know this is doing some damage to things that I care about and to some people that I care about, but the need to get the military cut is just overwhelming because nothing’s been done for 25, 30 years. So, I think that the military needs to be cut. A lot of the baggage that the Congress put in there needs to be taken out. They need to make some tough decisions between weapons systems instead of just getting everything and that’s what the sequester’s going to do.

So, again, it’s not ideal but, given that they don’t have the guts to cut the military in Congress, this is the best way to get it done.

What’s your prediction about the sequester’s impact on the economy and the middle class?
I think it’ll be fine. There will be some hardships for some individuals, there’s no question about that, but I think that most of the economists’ predictions are going to be wrong.


Gov. Dean speaks to Democracy for America members at Netroots Nation in 2012

If you were sitting in the White House right now and looking to make the “Grand Bargain” that everyone talks about, what would that look like to you?
Well, the Republicans are never going to do it. First of all, the Obama administration should have never left all of that revenue on the table for people earning under $400,000 a year. What I would do is I would close a bunch of corporate loopholes like get rid of the oil depletion allowance. And I do think you can reform Medicare without cutting benefits. What you need to do is have Medicare become a program where the providers are paid by the patient, not by the procedure. Because the whole system depends on what doctors do, which is ME, a doctor, and we get paid whether it works or not. It’s a silly way to pay people.

So you’re talking about making them responsible for the health of individuals rather than…”
Yeah, you know the providers are making the decisions but they’re not the ones that are paying the bills. They need to be accountable. So, that’s the way to fix this. You don’t need to take away benefits from people which is what the Republicans want to do. What the Republicans are doing basically is switching the risk in Medicare from the government to the patient. That’s not going to be successful except to bankrupt people and make their health worse.

If you use a system like Kaiser for all of Medicare, that’s what ultimately going to bring down the cost curve on Medicare and nobody is talking about that. I don’t know why they aren’t but they’re not and they should be because that’s the only real solution.

So, if you do that and get rid of all of those corporate give-aways that have been put in by Congress for years and years and years, then I think there can be a grand bargain. But, I just don’t see them being willing to do that.

Especially with the tea party being as strong a force as they are.
That’s right. Boehner basically has to keep doing what he says he isn’t going to do anymore which is to pass things with a big Democratic majority and a small minority of Republican votes. If he keeps doing that, he’s not going to be Speaker anymore, so at some point he’s going to stop doing that.

I’m almost afraid of what would replace him. It’ll be even worse.
Yeah, that’s right.


Gov. Dean sends his first tweet ever from Netroots Nation 2012

Looking ahead into 2014, if you were still running the show at the DNC, what would you be doing?
Well, I’d be doing what we did in 2006. I’d be working really hard for a 50-state strategy and I’d be finding candidates that Washington insiders don’t know anything about. That’s how we won. We had a lot of surprises and the reason we had a lot of surprises because we made the party strong enough and worked with the state parties. People who were finding candidates were local people because they knew where the best candidates were. It’s pretty hard to pick a candidate from Washington! The best way to do it is let the local people pick their own candidate and then support them.

So, I’d go back to the 50-state strategy. The president is going to be absolutely essential. The president alone, if he’s willing go on the road, he can change things dramatically. In Virginia, if President Obama is willing to work hard, we can head off the far right taking over the state which is Cuccinelli, one of the furthest right people in the country.

Do you think Obamacare is actually going to end up being an asset for Democrats?
I do. I think Obamacare might end up being an asset because…there are a couple of things that were never intended to be in the law… we made the decision, which I didn’t support, to keep the healthcare system in the private sector. So, once that decision is made, there are some good things in the law you can work with. One is the accountable care organization and the other is the exchanges. I think the link between employment and healthcare will be broken as a result of the law, even though that was never intended by the people who wrote it, and I think we can start paying providers by the patient instead of by the procedure. Those things are going to make a big difference. So, I do think there are some good things in this law to work with even though they were never intended by the people who wrote the bill.

I get the sense that there are things in the law that haven’t manifested themselves yet and as they do manifest themselves, it will make the law more attractive to more people.
Absolutely. I mean, look, this is still a popular law in Massachusetts and we all know that Romneycare and Obamacare are pretty much the same law. What I’m a little surprised at is that more Republican governors haven’t accepted the expansion of Medicaid. I mean it’s good for Vermont because they’re just paying our bills, basically. And it’ll be great for the deficit because they’re paying taxes into Washington and they’re not getting any of the benefits. But it’s incredibly bad government. Not that I’m surprised that Republicans are engaged in bad government! My wife was just saying tonight, even Rick Scott who is one of the tea party governors, and now his own legislature won’t take the money, I mean that’s just stupidity! There’s no nice way to say it.

It’s happening here in Michigan, too. They did finally take the money here and our governor does support it, but there is a huge faction of tea party conservatives that daily rallying, I’m on their email list, and the are adamant that we don’t take that money for the exchanges.
It’s just lunacy, really. So they’re against helping people getting health insurance, basically, paid for by their own tax dollars. It makes no sense whatsoever. What it’s going to do is hurt their hospitals enormously. Eventually I do think these governors are all going to take it. Texas has one of the best hospital systems in the world, let alone the country but if they don’t take this money, they’re not going to be the best or anything close to it anymore because they’re all going to be under enormous financial pressure.

I find it ironic that the tea party is advocating for not taking the money to set up the exchanges and forcing the federal government to do so which completely takes it out of the hands of the local folks. It seems completely counter to what they say they want which is local control of everything.
Oddly enough, I think that’s actually going to be helpful. I think it’s going to take…the federal government is going to make some mistakes with these exchanges but it makes more sense to have a unified national exchange and that’s what we’re going to get.

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