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Democrats’ presidential spectrum is narrow

Howard Dean, left, and Sen. Joe Lieberman at a Democratic dinner in Manchester, N.H., last February.
Howard Dean, left, and Sen. Joe Lieberman at a Democratic dinner in Manchester, N.H., last February.
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Florida Gov. Jeb Bush says Democratic presidential contender Howard Dean is “too far out of the mainstream. ... Ultra left-wing people aren’t going to be president of the United States.” Meanwhile, some Democrats say Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman is too conservative to win their support as presidential nominee. But a look at their records shows both Dean and Lieberman to be very much mainstream Democrats on most issues. From abortion to taxes, Dean and Lieberman are aligned with most rank-and-file Democrats.

Some Democratic activists deride the entire labeling process.

“Of the six major contenders, there is neither a conservative Democrat nor a liberal Democrat in the race,” said Simon Rosenberg, president of the centrist New Democrat Network.

“To argue that Howard Dean is an orthodox liberal is just not accurate,” Rosenberg said. “He’s been supported by the National Rifle Association in his state. I know Southern Democrats who are openly supporting him because they believe he is the only candidate they can take into the South because of his stance on guns.”


So what is it that has gotten Dean the “ultra left-wing” tag, while Lieberman is pegged as conservative?

In Dean’s case, it is partly a case of the president’s brother applying a little pre-emptive tar to a Democratic contender who shows signs of becoming a grass-roots favorite among his party’s loyalists.

Dean’s “left-wing” label is due primarily to two issues: Iraq and gay rights.

His opposition to the invasion of Iraq put him at odds with four of his rivals — Lieberman, Sen. John Kerry, Sen. John Edwards, and Rep. Dick Gephardt — all of whom voted for last October’s congressional use-of-force resolution.

Democratic strategist Garry South, who now works for Lieberman, gave his view of Dean back in March before signing on with the Connecticut senator.


“He’s going pretty far to the left,” said South, who added that “if this party becomes branded again ... as being insufficiently concerned about national defense, it doesn’t matter what we say about anything else. ... If we’re viewed as the anti-war party, we’re dead.”

But on Iraq, Dean stands where many, if not most, Democrats do.

Some in the left wing of his party say Dean does not go far enough in opposing the Pentagon. His rival, Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, told, “We’ve got to cut this Pentagon budget and get the money that they took away from our schools, our veterans, our health care programs. ... He (Dean) won’t talk about cutting the military, not a chance.”

Dean said Sunday, “I don’t agree with Dennis about cutting the Pentagon budget when we’re in the middle of a difficulty with terror attacks.”

In an e-mail this week to Democrats, the group, which is backing Kucinich, jumped on Dean’s remark, saying he “describes himself as a fiscal conservative adamant about balanced budgets. But if the soaring Pentagon budget is untouchable, are we being candid with voters about delivering them an enhanced domestic agenda that Democrats can be proud of?”

Kucinich serves as a useful foil for Dean. Because he goes even further in opposing the Pentagon and Bush’s foreign policy, Kucinich helps Dean look more “moderate” by comparison.


The other issue that gets Dean the “too liberal” epithet is his signing of a law, when he served as Vermont’s governor, that extended the same rights to same-sex couples as heterosexual couples.

While Vermont is the only state that has such a law, support for gay rights is strong among all nine Democratic presidential contenders.

The man tagged as Dean’s polar opposite in the Democratic field, Lieberman has gotten the reputation of being a conservative partly because of positions he once supported, but has since recanted, such as vouchers for low-income parents of children in public schools.

Lieberman’s crusade against smutty Hollywood movies, misogynistic rap music and violent video games — and his past association with fellow cultural conservative Bill Bennett — makes some Democrats uneasy.

But Rosenberg said, “It’s very unfair to characterize Joe Lieberman — who has been a civil rights advocate, a pro-choice Democrat, has given the only major speech (among the Democratic contenders) on poverty, was far out in front on notions of energy independence — as a right-wing Democrat. I know what right-wing Democrats are; they are not Joe Lieberman.”

In fact, on many issues, Lieberman’s positions are close to or identical with Dean’s:

  • Abortion: Both Dean and Lieberman are outspoken supporters of the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, which legalized abortion nationwide. Dean has said, “The government ought not interject itself into medical decisions to advance the religious or moral agenda of a politically vocal minority.” He has also said “the notion of ‘partial birth abortion’ is nonsense. It is a rare procedure used only to save the life or preserve the health of the mother.”

Lieberman has repeatedly voted against bills that would have outlawed the procedure or imposed penalties on doctors who perform it.

  • The death penalty: Both men support the death penalty in some instances.

Dean says the death penalty should be available in three cases: murder of a child, mass murder by a terrorist, and the murder of a police officer.

He also supports the Innocence Protection Act, co-sponsored by Lieberman, which would expand access to DNA testing and help improve the quality of lawyers for defendants facing the death penalty.

Lieberman voted for the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, which accelerated appeals in death penalty cases and restricted the right of convicts to file habeas corpus petitions challenging their convictions. The statute also added new death penalty crimes to federal law.

  • Gun control: Dean summed up his position Sunday in an interview with Tim Russert on NBC’s Meet the Press: “Keep the federal laws. Enforce them vigorously. And then let every state decide what they want. ... You won’t get more gun control than what you’ve already got in Wyoming or Montana and Vermont, and you’ll get a lot more in California and New Jersey. Fine.”

Lieberman, meanwhile, has voted for a waiting period and a mandatory national instant-check system for would-be gun purchasers.

  • Supreme Court vacancies: Lieberman voted to reject the first President Bush’s Supreme Court nominee in 1991, Clarence Thomas. He has also voted to filibuster the nominations of Miguel Estrada and Priscilla Owen by the current President Bush to federal appeals court posts.

This week, in the wake of Supreme Court decisions on the use of racial preferences in college admissions, Lieberman warned that “the close margins of these decisions demonstrate just how high the stakes are in 2004” and that “our courts will be dragged further to the right” unless a Democrat is elected president.

Dean likewise has attacked Bush’s judicial nominees. “This is the most conservative, far-right president that we have had since I have been alive and he has appointed the most conservative, far-right judicial appointees in my lifetime,” Dean told an abortion-rights group last month.

Fiscal policy: Lieberman voted for President’s Clinton 1993 budget plan, which raised taxes by $250 billion while cutting planned spending by $255 billion. By 1999, the budget was in surplus and Democrats argued that it was the Clinton budget plan that had produced it.

Dean has repeatedly praised Clinton’s budget policies. He now proposes repealing all of the tax cuts enacted by Congress in 2001 and this year.

In addition, Dean proposes a major tax increase: subjecting more earned income to the Social Security payroll tax. Under current policy, the first $87,000 of annual earned income is subject to the Social Security tax. Taxing all income would generate $66 billion in receipts in 2004 and about $468 billion through 2008, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

Lieberman — who voted against both the 2001 and 2003 tax cut measures — has supported a move to eliminate the dividend tax cut and upper-bracket income tax cuts.


Even granted these points of agreement between the supposed ends of the Democratic spectrum, they do have one undeniable difference.

Lieberman was one of the first to call for the toppling of Saddam Hussein, sponsoring a 1998 bill that made it the policy of the United States to seek to remove Saddam from power. Clinton signed the bill into law.

And there is a stylistic contrast between Dean and Lieberman.

While the Connecticut senator often makes his criticism of his opponents in a voice than suggests more sorrow than anger, Dean is a master of impassioned rhetoric. He speaks for those Democrats furious at Bush — and at some of their party leaders for backing him on Iraq.