The former DNC Chair discusses the current state of healthcare and what the Democrats need to do to prepare for the 2018 mid-term elections.
Fmr. Vermont Governor Howard Dean
Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.
Long before the presidential campaign of one Bernie Sanders, there was another Progressive from Vermont who had his hopes for the White House sabotaged by the Democratic Party’s pro-war establishment. Former Governor Howard Dean went on to become the chair of the DNC and develop the party’s 50-state strategy.
Tonight we’ll talk to Dean about President Trump’s agenda and how the Democrats are getting ready for next year’s midterm elections. Is there hope for the Democrats? We’ll talk to Howard Dean about that and more in just a moment.
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Tavis: So pleased to welcome Howard Dean back to this program. The former Governor of Vermont and 2004 Democratic presidential candidate is now a senior advisor at Dentons law firm. He joins us tonight from Washington. Of course, he’s also the former chair of the DNC. Mr. Dean, good to have you back, my friend.
Howard Dean: Thanks for having me on, Tavis.
Tavis: My pleasure, sir. Hillary Clinton has made the rounds everywhere trying to explain what happened. I am curious, given that you were the former chair of the DNC, to your mind, what happened? Why did she lose?
Dean: Look, Hillary would have been a fantastic president. She might have been the smartest person ever to seek the presidency. She had trouble connecting with people and, of course, the right wingers beat her up.
And the Russians probably had something to do with it. We don’t know exactly what yet. So there was a lot of reasons for it. You know, if you win or lose the presidential race has to do with what’s going on at the time.
Trump, in some ways, rode a wave of working class upset. Those are all the people who’ve been left behind by globalization and they came out to vote, which they normally don’t. So there was a lot of reasons that people lose races. I can, unfortunately, attest to what they are [laugh].
Tavis: I don’t want to spend too much time tonight looking back on Hillary’s race because, again, she’s been everywhere talking about that. But I did want to have a conversation tonight and I thought, by inviting you on, I could get some reasonably honest responses to these questions.
And I’m wondering if I can start by asking you to be honest with me and tell me that you believe as I do that the Democratic Party is in trouble. Are you willing to admit that?
Dean: Yes, but it’s in trouble for some reasons which are that we had an eight-year incumbent president. Whenever we have an incumbent president, the Democratic National Committee becomes the reelect vehicle, not the sort of vehicle to go out and touch people.
The real reason, though, is our most important demographic age-wise is people under the age of 35. They voted 58% for Hillary. They elected Barack Obama, the only election in my lifetime where more people under 35 voted than over 65. That has only happened once.
But they’re not Democrats. We’ve got to find a way to reach these young people. Hillary and I are actually doing some work on these supporting groups like Flippable and Run For Something and Indivisible and Color of Change, Voter Latino. There’s about 10 or 15 groups we’re gonna support that are doing it their way.
So I think one of the reasons the Democratic Party’s in trouble is, from an institutional point of view, young people have grown up thinking they didn’t need institutions. Turns out now they do. We’re gonna have to let them design their own institution rather than tell them how to do it. It’s just gonna work that way with this generation.
Tavis: So this generation has a lot of Progressive voices in it. You know as well as I do that the oldest guy in the race, Bernie Sanders, got more young votes than Hillary and Trump combined. We could unpack that for hours. The question, though, is whether or not there is a home in this Democratic Party for young, progressive voices.
Dean: Of course there is. I mean, that’s where they’ve all voted for Obama twice. They voted for me. I mean, I was the person that probably brought them into politics, this particular generation. A lot of the people who came into my politics and basically ran the campaign were 23 years old.
Then they remade the DNC when I went over there. Then Barack Obama hired them in 2006. They ran his campaign. Now they’re in their 30s and 35 years old. They’re ready for this. You know, I think we’re in very good shape.
But the institutional trappings of the DNC and the Democratic Party are in trouble not because they’re incompetent, but because there’s an enormous gap between our kids and ourselves about how you make institutions and what institutions are worth. And that, we have to close.
Tavis: What you had is a Democratic Party that many of these young Progressives thought was attacking, was all out against, Bernie Sanders. Then Hillary Clinton puts out a book and she attacks yet again Bernie Sanders.
So I’m just not sure I’m connecting the dots that you just can turn around a couple of years later and say, “But there is room for you. Here’s where you fit in. Public policy-wise, here’s what we’re willing to address.” I don’t think you can turn that corner that fast.
Dean: Well, let me step on the accelerator in turn because we don’t have a lot of time.
Tavis: Come on, come on [laugh].
Dean: So, first of all, Hillary also said a lot of really nice things about Bernie in that book which, of course, the media never picked up on because it doesn’t sell to be nice to people these days. But the second and more important thing is Bernie Sanders introduced a single payer bill in Congress. He’s done that many times.
15 Democrats supported that and cosigned that bill with him. Don’t tell me this party isn’t becoming more attuned to what young people want, more attuned to what Progressives want. I think they are. Look at some of the people that are being talked about running for President of the United States.
Eric Garcetti is a very progressive mayor of Los Angeles. Kirsten Gillibrand, first one to take on the chairman in her own party, the Armed Services Committee, over student rape. Kamala Harris, Chris Murphy. These are all Progressive young people who I think are the future of the Democratic Party. And there are many, many more that we haven’t even talked about.
Tavis: And yet the persons who lead the party right now on Capitol Hill are not that particular group. So the question is can you get there from here with the same old leadership and the same old strategy?
Dean: The answer is probably not. I think people forget, and especially the Washington media forgets, that there’s a big difference between the congressional leadership and there’s a necessary skill in congressional leadership to get stuff done in Congress. That’s an entirely different skill than being President of the United States.
And, yes, the average of the leadership in our House on the Democrat side is about 75 years old. I’m not anxious to get rid of Nancy Pelosi, but I am anxious to get young people into the leadership of our party much faster than it’s being done.
Tavis: Do you think that the candidacy of Hillary Clinton, although it wasn’t winning, will have an impact on the numbers of women that we see put themselves up for office in the coming years?
Dean: It already has. There are 84 Democrats running for the Virginia House. Last year, we only had about 29 contestants and at least half of those candidates in the Virginia House are women. We have groups like Emerge is one of the groups we’re funding. And, of course, EMILY’S List has been the absolute anchor for women candidates for a long time.
But there are more women that have come out to run because of these young people. Look, Tavis, I would say — and I defer to your judgment in this because you’ve been through a lot of this too — I think for this generation, Trump’s election was their Edmund Pettis Bridge and their Kent State.
They had no idea people could be as terrible as Trump has been. The Trump election was essentially a rejection of every value that people under 35 hold in this country. I think this is their test. This is their test as we were tested. I think they’re gonna pass the test, but we got to pull our bootstraps up and get going.
Tavis: So I think you’re right about the fact that this is, to use your phrase, their Edmund Pettis Bridge. Where I think we disagree is that you can’t beat somebody with nobody.
Dean: I agree.
Tavis: And back to my earlier point, you have to put up the right person to run against Donald Trump. Incumbents just don’t fall over like flies. Even when they are as racist and as sexist and as xenophobic as he is, I just don’t think that you can rely on a strategy where Donald Trump implodes and that becomes your point of victory.
So to the list that you raised a moment ago, I know most of those persons somewhat well, rather well some of them. Eric Garcetti is my mayor here in L.A. and compared to some politicians, he is rather progressive.
But there are other folk on that list, quite frankly, with all due respect, who don’t measure up to the kind of progressive policies and progressive politics that these young folk were turned on in in Bernie Sanders. So if you’re gonna slide back to any one of those persons who don’t measure up to the Progressive standard that Bernie set, I still don’t see how you get there from here.
Dean: See, I think the Bernie phenomenon was two-fold. One was the progressivism and one was just telling it like it is. I don’t consider myself a far left Progressive. I was pretty conservative about money when I was governor. But all those kids were for me because I told it like it was about Iraq and I told it like it was about other things too. And that is an incredibly attractive quality to young people. Bernie had it.
I think, you know, 80% or more of the people that voted for Bernie ended up voting for Hillary Clinton. I don’t think this generation is that divided. Yes, they’re Progressive. Yes, they want change. I don’t think there’s gonna be a big Litmus test as long as we nominate somebody who’s somewhere center left, which is what this party is about.
Tavis: As we read the reports, the filings, to date, the Democratic Party is also in trouble at this point because they ain’t raising no money. Somebody once said years ago that money is the mother’s milk of politics, and we’ve seen that happen increasingly since Citizens United. So if you can’t raise no money, how do you win?
Dean: I think that’s a problem. We’re gonna have to do better there. But it’s also important to funnel money to some of these young peoples’ groups. They’re starting their own institutions. These groups like Indivisible, for example, they are the ones that organize the airport protests. What about the people that organize the Women’s March, which I think quadrupled the attendance at Trump’s inauguration, much to his displeasure?
These are people who know how to organize. The problem is, they need to have some commitment as well as cooperation. They need to get past just ad hoc organizing. As Marshall Ganz said, it’s not just about mobilization. It’s also about long-term organization. I think that’s the gap that we’ve got to cover. Look, I don’t think there’s that much bandwidth inside this young generation.
There’s a few right wing conservatives because there always has to be naysayers. Most of them are center left and they are gonna vote for us. The question is, what kind of enthusiasm are they gonna show. That, we have a lot of responsibility to make sure they are turned on.
Tavis: So if you were starting to lay the groundwork for a run against Donald Trump, including there are some who are — you mentioned the names a moment ago and we could add to that list. Cory Booker out of New Jersey, there are a lot of young voices that we — I can hear the footsteps in the dark.
These people are starting to run and they’re starting to make trips to all the right states, all the right places, appear before the right groups. Again, you’ve done this, so you know what you have to do when you’re getting ready to run, and you don’t do that a year out from election day.
So that if you were starting to lay the groundwork to run against Donald Trump, I think the dye is already cast. We see who this guy is pretty clearly. So if you in 2017 or 2018 were starting to lay the groundwork for a campaign against him, what would you be running on? How would you be organizing your campaign on the issues, on policy?
Dean: Well, first of all, I would use the 50-state strategy again. We have to be organized. I know very well a Democratic nominee is not gonna carry Idaho, but we’re not gonna carry Idaho in 20 years if we don’t start working on it now. And there are Democrats in Idaho that need to be listened to. In fact, there are actually Republicans in Idaho who we could reach if we would show up there. So that’s number one, all 50 states.
Number two, I would make sure that I could connect with people. A lot of — you know, Hillary was very, very smart. If she’d rattled off a 10-point plan, you could be sure it would have been vetted and she knew what she was talking about.
The problem was actually connecting with people. She did connect with some, particularly young women, but it was harder because she’d been in Washington for so long and this was not a year that we wanted somebody with a lot of expertise in Washington as a country.
So we’ve got some of these candidates — and I don’t know who they are — are gonna really connect with people, and those are the ones that are gonna have to win the nomination. I have no control over that. That’s what primary voters choose, not people in back rooms.
Tavis: When you say “connect”, you’ve used that word four or five times now tonight. Unpack that word. It’s such an amorphous generic term. When you say “connect”, what do you mean by that?
Dean: I’ll give you an example. Bill Clinton, who had the best connection with anybody, I think, since Franklin Roosevelt was president, if you’d ask Bill Clinton a question about education in a town meeting, he would know what the real question was.
It wasn’t about education. It’s what kind of a future I want for my children. That’s what the real question is. So what Bill Clinton would have done is say something about education. One sentence is “Now let’s talk about your children.” That voter would be his forever and that’s when you have to understand the people you’re talking to.
Trump understood the people he was talking to in not a particularly nice way, and he certainly appealed to the worst in them, not the best in them. But he understood who he was talking to even with his pro football stuff the other day. You know, this is his white supremacist side.
But we have to have a positive message, Tavis. I think we have to have a positive message. We don’t have to say anything about Trump. Everybody knows about Trump. Most people think he shouldn’t be in the office. He’s an embarrassment. That’s not how you win the race. You have to put a positive vision about the kinds of things you want to do for America and connect with young people.
I’ll tell you why Barack Obama became President of the United States from having been senator for four years. He was the first multicultural president in the history of America. Our young kids, this generation where I call the first global generation, they see themselves as multicultural.
That doesn’t mean racism is dead or anything like that, but they see themselves as inclusive. They care about women’s rights. They care about gay rights. They care about racial justice, all those things that Trump doesn’t stand for. We need a candidate who can touch them the way Barack Obama touched them.
Tavis: So you think it’d be a mistake, if I heard you right, to run against Trump. Bill Clinton, who you referenced a moment ago, famously said that every election is about the future and not about the past. So you think it’d be a mistake to actually run against Trump rather than laying out a vision for a brighter future?
Dean: You have to lay a vision out for a better future. Everybody knows Trump is from the dark side. He has no vision. He makes you feel bad instead of good. You got to have somebody out there who, as Bill Clinton used to say, is sunny.
Now we’re not gonna get somebody like Bill Clinton. Somebody like that comes along once in, you know, three generations or something. But there is somebody out there who’s gonna run out of the 12 or 15 people who are thinking about it who has the ability to connect with people and be positive as Barak Obama did in 2008.
Tavis: How do you think the Democrats are doing on Capitol Hill, given what they’re up against?
Dean: I think they’re doing great. I’ve always had a lot — I think Pelosi is grossly under-estimated by both the press corps and people outside Washington, and I think that Schumer is the smartest guy politically that I have known in the Senate, probably in my career, as a guy whose able to see around the corners.
Now these are creatures of Washington. They may not be attractive to the broad number of people, but they sure as hell know how to get their jobs done. And people have made a lot of fun out of this, you know, bright future or whatever slogan they had.
But the truth is, you never can have a good slogan when you’re in the minority and you don’t control the White House. The White House controls the slogan. When we have a candidate, the we’ll have a slogan that the candidate likes and that’ll be what’s compared to Trump.
Tavis: And what have you made of, since you mentioned Pelosi and Schumer specifically, what have you made of these two or three issues on which we’ve seen them sitting in the Oval Office with the president where they seemed to come to some sort of deal which is, of course, that’s caused a great deal of angst amongst Republicans on the Hill?
Dean: It doesn’t cause any angst — look, there’s two really conservative senators, neither of whom I would ever vote for, Jim Langford of Oklahoma and Thom Tillis of North Carolina, who just dropped a bill for the Dreamers. Now it’s very conservative, but it will eventually let them stay here.
That’s a big deal. 780,000 people. We ought to work with people like that. We can come together in this stuff. You know, their bill is not a bill that I support, but it does do something that’s a good thing. I have no problem working with Republicans if something good is gonna come out of it for the people I care about.
Tavis: Let me shift to foreign policy. This looming war, this looming battle, if you will, with North Korea is scaring a lot of people and it’s easy to get distracted by Trump and his comments about the NFL and calling players SOBs and disinviting the Golden State Warriors to the White House.
It’s easy to get distracted by that. Somebody called it WMD, weapon of mass distraction [laugh], although they’re legitimate issues.
But when you get caught up in that, you sort of lose sight of sleight of hand in the White House and what they might be doing on North Korea and elsewhere. How concerned are you militarily about where we are and how dangerously Donald Trump is playing with North Korea?
Dean: I’ve always been much more concerned about Trump in foreign policy. In domestic policy, there are lots of cross-currents. We’re a strong country. We’ll survive Trump domestically. The trouble is, in foreign policy, your words matter a lot. First of all, he knows nothing about foreign policy and he seems to work hard at knowing nothing. He’s not interested.
Second of all, he’s so ill, I think, psychologically that he gets — who wants to get in a [bleep] contest with a guy who’s got 20 million people living who are barely above the subsistence level and he runs that country? Why would you even take this on personally if you’re the President of the United States?
But Trump can’t help himself. This is the kind of stuff that can get into a problem. And the bad thing is, for a lot of reasons that I don’t particularly want to go into, if this is a war, it will be a nuclear war. There will be no question about that. And the reason for that is that’s the only way that we can stop North Korea from destroying South Korea and Japan.
So this is really a very bad thing. I worry about Trump because I think he has no self-discipline. He has no knowledge. He doesn’t respect the people who he has working for him as much as he should. This is a real danger, Tavis, I think.
Tavis: We were told, though, as you recall back during confirmation hearings, that there are a lot of folk on Capitol Hill who were comfortable with the persons that he put around him in terms of his military apparatus that even if he were a bit, you know, cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs, that the people around him were the right people to keep him on track when it came to making military decisions. Do I hear you suggesting that you don’t trust him or the military minds around him?
Dean: No, I think the military minds around him are pretty good. McMaster, uh, Mattis…
Tavis: Mattis, yeah.
Dean: And Kelly. I think they know what they’re doing for him. I didn’t approve of Kelly, what Kelly did at DHS. I thought it was appalling, but I do think he’s a good Chief of Staff and I certainly think he knows a lot about military matters.
The problem is, Trump won’t listen. That’s the really big problem. You know nothing about the military. This guy had five exemptions, never served, then you don’t listen to your generals about military matters? There’s something wrong with this guy.
Tavis: I wrote a piece the other day that I want to get your take on. Not because it’s my piece, but because the issue that I tried to raise. The word “shame” can be useful in fighting for social justice. Sometimes people need to be shamed. Dr. King and others in the movement did that. They shamed Bull Connor. They shamed all kinds of folk in that movement.
Lately in our culture, we’ve gotten accustomed to these words, body shaming and slut shaming. So the word shaming, I think, has been overused in some regard. But I wonder whether or not the time has come for us to start shaming the people who stand with the president.
My point is simply this. He seems impervious to any kind of critique. He seems impervious to being shamed about anything. But there’s a fundamental question for me about the people who continue to stand with him, to stand around him, and whether or not they ought to be held to account for enabling a bigot, for enabling a white supremacist in the White House. Is there anything to that, or do you think that’s just a waste of time?
Dean: Well, I actually think we’re fairly successful. Bannon has gone, Gorka is gone. Kushner is now discovered that he had a private server and sent emails on it…
Tavis: But that’s not because we shamed them. It’s because Donald Trump shamed them. He got sick of them. It’s not because we shamed them.
Dean: Well, we created an atmosphere by which he basically had to do something about this. So manipulating Trump is not that hard as it turned out because he’s so ill and has so many weaknesses. It’s easy to get to him, as we have seen over the past weekend.
Let me just say one other thing, Tavis, because I know you care about this stuff deeply. I’m asking for trouble here because here I am, an old white guy talking about race relations. People say race relations are worse. I think they’re a hell of a lot better and I’ll tell you why they’re a hell of a lot better.
It’s not that we’re not undergoing a very difficult time. When we have LeBron James and Colin Kaepernick and half of the National Football League standing up and doing what they did, that would have been unthinkable. I have a suspicion. You can test me out on this theory.
I think race relations are better because having had Barack Obama as President of the United States, the African American community has now had the President of the United States. They are not going to put up with any kind of second-class citizenship at all. That’s what this fight is about.
You know, these young people thought the era of racial injustice was over. Well, that turned out not to be true after Ferguson and subsequent things. But I think we’re up to a new struggle and a new attempt at bringing racial justice to this country and I think the athletes deserve an enormous amount of credit for that.
I think the fact that they feel comfortable in doing it is a statement about the things that are better, not worse. It doesn’t mean we don’t have work to do. I’m just damn glad they’re taking on that work.
Tavis: I’m glad they’re taking it on as well. I’d only push back in this regard. Let me preface it by saying I respect the sentiment that you put forward and, on balance, I don’t disagree with it. I think that, in these conversations about race and whether we’ve gotten better in America, we tend to ask the wrong question.
The question is not are Black folk doing better today than they were 200 years ago. By God, I hope that we’re better off than we were 200 years ago. The question is, how do Black folk stand up today versus white folk today?
And when Black folk still earn three-fifths of what white folk earn and when Black folk are still the first fired, but the last hired, and when Black folk still see all these disproportionate realities in health, in income, in wealth, in education, etc., etc., etc., you’re right.
Things are getting better, but we’re asking the wrong question. It ain’t about now versus then. It’s about Black folk now versus white folk now. When you ask that question, you get a far different answer. But I digress because my time is up.
Dean: No, I agree with you. I agree.
Tavis: Yeah, yeah. I got 15 seconds left. Right quick, there’s a movement now with Steve Cohen, Democrat out of Tennessee, to call for the impeachment of Donald Trump. Is that a good strategy or bad strategy?
Dean: It’s not gonna happen as long as you have big Republican majorities. You need 67 senators to remove a President of the United States. That’s never happened. And with 52 in the Senate, it’s not likely to happen. First of all, a Republican House is not gonna impeachment Trump and certainly a Republican Senate is not gonna remove him.
And even if the Republicans were a minority, they’d have enough votes to block that. So at this point now, if Mueller comes back with some stuff about treason, that’s a different matter, but I don’t see us there now.
Tavis: Howard Dean, you’re always honest with me and I’m always glad to have you on. Thanks for your insights, sir.
Dean: Thank you.
Tavis: My pleasure. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.
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