Democratic presidential contender Howard Dean has taken contrasting and sometimes conflicting stances on issues ranging from the war in Iraq to campaign finance to disposal of nuclear waste at the Yucca Mountain site in Nevada.
While some of his Democratic rivals have fired intermittent criticism at Dean for shifting his stands, none of them has yet wrapped all the issues into a comprehensive attack that questions Dean’s credibility.
In an interview last week about his foreign policy ideas, Dean said “it’s all about nuance” and indeed some of Dean’s shifts have been a matter of nuance.
But others, such as his switch on whether he'd abide by campaign spending limits, have been outright reversals of his previous commitments.
Attack Iraq — with U.N. 'permission'
One of Dean’s rivals, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, has criticized a statement Dean made on Monday in which he said he “would not have hesitated” to launch an attack on Iraq this year “had the United Nations given us permission and asked us to be part of a multilateral force.”
But such an attack on Iraq is hard to square with Dean’s consistent argument that a war was entirely unnecessary.
In his speech on Monday, Dean said, “I have never found the evidence convincing that Iraq was ever a significant threat to the United States.”
Dean has angrily denounced Kerry and other Democrats who voted for last October’s congressional resolution authorizing President Bush to use force against Iraq.
In November of 2002, the United Nations Security Council approved Resolution 1441, declaring Saddam Hussein's regime "in material breach of its obligations" to account for all its weapons programs and warned that Iraq "will face serious consequences as a result of its continued violations of its obligations."
Despite efforts by Secretary of State Colin Powell last February, Security Council members France, Germany and Russia refused to approve a resolution that would have specifically authorized use of military force.
Dean’s position on going to war — but only with U.N. “permission” — does not square with Dean’s statement last October that he supported a resolution drafted by Sens. Joseph Biden, D-Del., and Richard Lugar, R-Ind.
Attack Iraq — without U.N. permission
The Biden-Lugar measure would have authorized Bush to use military force against Iraq for the purpose of eliminating Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, not for the purpose of toppling Saddam Hussein.
The Biden-Lugar measure would have given Bush the go-ahead to use force to compel “the dismantling or destruction of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction program and its prohibited ballistic missile program.”
The proposal would have required Bush to seek a new U.N. resolution, but if the Security Council chose to not pass one and Bush decided that Iraq posed a grave threat to the United States or allied nations, it would have authorized him to order an attack.
Thus, last October — in contrast to his current stance — Dean’s position was support for an attack on Iraq, even without U.N. "permission."
$87 billion for Iraq operation
Dean’s stance has also changed on whether Congress should have approved the $87 billion Bush requested last fall to sustain operations in Iraq.
When questioned about the $87 billion on Sept. 8, Dean brusquely turned aside the question, saying, “I'm not in Congress.”
A reporter pressed him for an answer, telling Dean, “It's the most important matter before the U.S. Congress.” Dean cut him off, saying, “I doubt that very much. I'm running for president. I'll tell you what I'm going to do, but I'm not going to tell you how I face an issue that is not of my making.”
Three weeks later, in a Sept. 25 debate, Dean changed his position. Instead of saying it was not an issue for him to decide, he said he’d support the $87 billion — but only under one scenario: if Congress would repeal the tax cuts enacted in 2001 and 2002, a condition impossible to meet, as anyone could see from looking at the vote tally on those tax cuts.
“I believe the $87 billion ought to come from the excessive and extraordinary tax cuts that this president foisted upon us,” he said on Sept. 25.
Pressed by CNBC debate host Brian Williams, “Is that an up or down, yes or no, on the $87 billion per se?” Dean said, “We have no choice, but it has to be financed by getting rid of all the president's tax cuts.”
By Oct. 17, Dean had changed his rhetorical nuance from approving the $87 billion (if tax cuts were repealed) to opposing the $87 billion.
"I would oppose President Bush's latest request … unless the President submits a new plan that is paid for out of the tax cut,” Dean said in a written statement.
But in his television ads last month attacking his rival Rep. Dick Gephardt, Dean did not remind viewers of any of his nuances or shifts in position on the $87 billion, or on the war itself.
Dean attacked Gephardt for supporting the war and flatly said, “I opposed the war in Iraq. And I'm against spending another $87 billion there."
Campaign spending reversal
The clearest case of Dean making a U-turn that directly benefited his campaign came on the issue of taxpayer funding.
Under the voluntary campaign finance system, if a presidential contender agrees to accept taxpayer funds, he must also abide by spending limits. In 2004, the primary season limit will be about $44 million. As recently as last March, Dean said the spending limit was a good idea.
According to an Associated Press story dated March 7 of this year, Dean “promised to make it an issue in the Democratic primaries if any of his rivals decide to skip public financing.”
"It will be a huge issue," Dean told the AP in March. "I think most Democrats believe in campaign finance reform."
But in November Dean opted out of the spending limits, blaming Bush’s fund-raising for forcing him to do so.
Another reversal was on shipping nuclear waste to the Yucca Mountain site in Nevada, an idea Dean had backed as Vermont's governor.
According to the Las Vegas Review Journal, Dean told supporters at an October fund-raiser in Las Vegas, "Now that I'm running for president, I've seen the light" and would re-assess the idea of shipping waste to Yucca Mountain.
Side-stepping on Medicare
On Medicare, Dean has apparently shifted his position, or at least is unwilling to re-affirm his old position.
In 1995 Dean said, “I fully subscribe to the notion that we should reduce the Medicare growth rate from 10 percent to 7 percent, or less if possible."
Some voters are aware of Dean’s former stand and they praise him for it. On a New Hampshire campaign stop in September, Dean was faced by a doctor named Gary Sobelson who told him, “You were right when you were governor when you said Medicare costs were going up too fast.”
Instead of acknowledging what Sobelson had just said, Dean took a spiritual tack. “We need to somehow figure out how we are going to de-corporatize medicine,” he observed. “Making everything bigger, more corporate, and better organized and more efficient does not lead to the kind of spiritual quality that we need in our lives.”
'Wait and see'
Asked later by this reporter whether he’d seek to cut Medicare’s annual growth rate, Dean said, “We have to wait and see. We haven’t looked at the balance sheets of Medicare yet.”
In a Nov. 24 debate, Kerry harassed Dean on the Medicare growth rate issue, repeatedly asking him to say whether as president he’d adopt his 1995 position.
Dean avoided answering Kerry's questions during the debate and did likewise with reporters in the post-debate "spin" room. “Cuts in Medicare are off the table,” Dean told reporters.
But the issue is not outright cuts in Medicare outlays; it is reducing the program’s rate of growth.
If Medicare were growing at 2 percent annually rather than at its current 8 percent annual growth rate, outlays would not be cut, they’d still be growing.
By changing the topic, Dean avoids the need to either renounce or re-affirm his 1995 position.