Former DNC chair Howard Dean

The former DNC chair shares why he feels President Obama will be re-elected and explains what he believes led to the collapse of the congressional super committee.

Howard Dean served six terms as Vermont's governor before running for the '04 Democratic presidential nomination. In '05, he was tapped to chair the DNC and, later, founded Democracy for America. He began his political career in the Vermont legislature and also served as lieutenant governor. Before entering politics, Dean, who received his M.D. from NY's Albert Einstein College of Medicine, practiced internal medicine. He's currently a consultant, focusing on healthcare, early childhood development and the expansion of grassroots politics, and a CNBC contributor.


Tavis: Howard Dean is, of course, the former chair of the Democratic National Convention. Following his time as governor of Vermont. He was, of course, also a candidate himself for the presidency back in 2004.

He joins us tonight from Burlington, Vermont. Dr. Dean, as always, good to have you back on this program, sir.

Howard Dean: Thanks for having me on, Tavis.

Tavis: So much to talk about, let me jump right in. First of all, is the failure of this super committee a good thing or a bad thing?

Dean: Well, given where it was headed, it’s probably a good thing. It would have been nice if they would have made reasonable compromises, but reasonableness is not in the right-wing vocabulary these days.

So it’s probably a good thing, I would say, and I think you’re going to see a lot of squirming on Congress and I hope the president makes good on his threat to veto any erosion of the deal.

Tavis: The failure is good or bad for the president, since you mentioned him?

Dean: Well, I think it underlines the fact that the president is the one that’s trying to get stuff done and the Republican Congress is trying to stop him from doing it.

Mitch McConnell reminds everybody every day that he thinks his only job is to make sure the president’s a one-term president. Strikes me as fairly partisan.

I think this president’s going to win reelection. I think he’s mainly going to do it, even though he’s had a terribly rough four years, because the Republicans really have shown themselves – I hate to say this, but they’re incompetent. They’re absolutely incompetent. They can’t run Congress. You can’t trust them to run the country.

Tavis: For those who will see that comment you’ve just made on YouTube in a matter of minutes and suggest that Howard Dean is just another example of the incivility in Washington, that the former chair of the DNC and former governor calls members of Congress incompetent, your response to that in advance of the criticism is what?

Dean: My response is that 91 percent of the American people agree with me. Nine percent is the favorability rating of Congress – 9 percent. I’m with most of the other rest of these Americans.

I think we’ve got to get a new Congress and get all of them out of there and get some people who actually want to do what’s good for the country.

Tavis: How do you respond to folk who say that while you’re being partisan, calling Republicans incompetent, saying that they were unreasonable, that they didn’t want to compromise, the Democrats also drew their line in the sand, and if we really wanted to resolve this issue, Simpson-Bowles gave us a way out.

Nobody wants to follow the recommendations that they have made. This was the president’s commission that he put together. Frankly, even the president doesn’t want to follow, at least at this point, the recommendations of his own commission.

So why do you lay the blame just at the feet of Republicans when Democrats drew their line as well and said there are things that they didn’t want to compromise on?

Dean: Here’s what happened. What happened is the Republicans in the committee put taxes on the table, which was the key to opening the door for Democrats to do entitlement reform. The Republican caucus said no, do not compromise on taxes, and the leadership in the Republican Party is so weak that they just said, “Yes, sir,” and came right back, and that was the end of the deal. That’s basically what happened.

You can blame the Democrats if you want to. I’m sure the Democrats aren’t perfect by a long shot. But we know who’s been holding up everything for the last two years, and I believe the president’s going to win a pretty resounding victory as a result of this. You cannot trust Republicans with your money. They ran up these deficits and they won’t deal with them.

Tavis: You mentioned Mitch McConnell, one of the leaders, of course, in the Senate just a moment ago. The truth of the matter is, as we all know, that none of the leaders got involved. Boehner did not get involved; Mr. Reid out of Nevada did not get involved.

I suspect, knowing how Washington works, they were certainly involved in advising and consenting and doing play-by-play late at night, but they did not publicly get involved in these conversations. The White House stayed away.

For the leaders, knowing how important this issue is, to stay away from this work, was that a good thing? Was that a smart choice?

Dean: Frankly, honestly, Tavis, I think that’s being a little unfair. I did see reports that Boehner and Reid had sat down together, trying to make this work. I think the president wants jobs. The Congress has done nothing about jobs. The Republicans have no jobs plan.

The president did what he should have done. He’s being the president. He went to Asia and spent 10 days with people who can help us create jobs by buying our stuff. I think that’s a sensible thing to do.

So I guess I reject that criticism. I do think the president did what he’s supposed to do. I think Boehner and Reid did what they could do. The problem, fundamentally, is that John Boehner, who I actually think has potential as a good speaker, cannot control his caucus.

He’s afraid of the 80 members of the Tea Party, and that’s what the problem with the Republican Party is. That’s why I think the president’s going to win reelection. You cannot elect people who are afraid of their own base, and that’s where the Republicans are right now.

Tavis: You’ve said three times now by my count you think the president’s going to win. Should he win, he will win in part because his campaign strategy, as we all know, is going to be one of running against a do-nothing Congress. Will that message sell?

Dean: Sure. It worked for Harry Truman, it’ll work for Barack Obama. People want change, and at the end of the day this is going to be a choice, and whoever the Republicans nominate is going to have a record of running up enormous deficits, and they’re trying to blame Obama for it.

But the worst thing they’re going to have to deal with is this idea that they thought that it was more important for them to try to win the election than it was to do something good for the country, and I think the president’s going to be very effective in hammering home – he already has been. He has not been a great campaigner during his time as president. There have been plenty of things I’ve disagreed with.

But since the jobs bill it’s we can’t wait, and he’s doing a lot of things that he has the power to do with executive orders, and pass this bill. Those are things the American people understand, and if today, if you look at the polling, the president would win reelection, and he’d win states like Ohio and Florida, and that’s pretty tough.

Tavis: So days ago the president gave what I would call his “No Detours” speech, the one where he suggested that given that the super committee has failed in a pretty super way, that these automatic cuts that are now supposed to kick in are in fact going to kick in.

He suggested there will be no detours. We’re going to go by the letter of the law, given what you all passed on the Hill. So I raise that because the president, more times than I can count, has said, Governor Dean, that he won’t do this, “I am not going to do this, I will not do this,” and yet later on he compromises, he capitulates, he caves.

So why should I believe this time this really is a line in the sand and he meant what he said, no detours?

Dean: Well, first of all, if the president sticks to his word – and I agree with you he hasn’t always done that as well as we’d like – the deficit problem is pretty much solved. Because the Bush tax cuts expire of their own at the end of 2012, and this would cut another $1.2 trillion for the deficit, and all of a sudden most of the problem would be solved.

Sixty percent of the deficit is, in fact, caused according to the Congressional Budget Office by the Bush tax cuts. So they expire and this other thing automatically goes into effect. The president’s deficit problem is solved.

Secondly, I am beginning to believe that he’s serious, because it is true that he has many times, especially in the healthcare bill, drawn the line in the sand and then the line got erased and he backed off a little bit. But this has been going on for two or three months now.

This president is in campaign mode. His people must have said, “Look, you’ve got to stand up for what you believe and that’s how you get reelected,” which is true, and I think he’s done that for the last couple of months since that job speech at the end of August.

Tavis: I could be misreading this; I don’t think I am. If I am, I’m sure you’ll correct me right quick. But the flip side of standing by, the no detours approach, the flip side of standing by that is that when these automatic cuts start to kick in – now granted, they don’t kick in until 2013, so Congress very wisely put this off, or very shrewdly – I don’t want to say wisely – very shrewdly, in a very manipulative way, put these cuts off until 2013.

But if in this campaign that issue becomes a major issue, and I suspect it will if they can’t figure something out in the interim, and the American public really starts to understand what happens when these cuts actually kick in, the president can say “no detours” all along, but when his base ends up being the ones most impacted by these cuts, are they going to stand by him?

Dean: Tavis, that’s not going to happen. This deal was a better deal for the Democratic base, which is the majority of the country, than it was for the Republicans.

Two percent cuts across the board for Medicaid – Medicare providers, that’s not out of the democratic base. This is not out of the benefit package; it’s out of the pay for doctors and hospitals. That’s tough, but that’s not the democratic base.

Then the other half of the cuts is coming from a Defense cut. Now, nobody’s cut Defense for a long time. Defense hadn’t been looked at for about 25 years in a serious way. These cuts are tough. Leon Panetta’s already said, “Oh, my Lord, we can’t do this.”

We can do this. This is doable. There are a bunch of weapons systems that Bob Gates wanted to get rid of. They’re now going to be gotten rid of. We need to get out of Afghanistan, and we’re on our way out of Iraq.

These cuts are doable, and the president’s right to stand by them. I think that’s why you asked me in the beginning is this a better deal than the one the committee would have gotten to? I think it’s a better deal for the American people.

Tavis: Look me in the eye – even though you’re on a satellite feed – look me in the eye and tell me earnestly that you believe that Defense is, in fact, after all is said and done, going to get cut, Governor Dean.

Dean: It better, because if it doesn’t, then we’re not doing our job as citizens.

Tavis: It better, but will it – that’s my question. Will it? You honestly believe that?

Dean: I don’t know. I don’t know. These congresspeople, both Democrats and Republicans, have a way of weaseling out of stuff at the last minute, but Defense hasn’t been looked at for a long, long time, and there’s a lot of fat in the Defense budget that needs to get cut.

Now, the Defense contractors and all those people are very smart. I think there’s defense jobs based in about 430 out of the 435 districts, but these are automatic, and if the president is tough we’re going to get this done, and the president’s going to go down to somebody who really made a difference in balancing the budget.

If he caves in, then we haven’t gained anything. This is up to the American people and up to the president now. The Congress has made itself irrelevant. I think that might not be a bad thing.

Tavis: This is a tough question – maybe not, given that you’re the former chair of the DNC. Maybe it’s a lay-up to ask you with 35 seconds to go in this conversation – your assessment of what’s happening at the moment, since it changes every other moment – your assessment of what’s happening at the moment on the Republican side with regard to who their nominee is going to be against Mr. Obama?

Dean: Well, it looks like it’s going to be the two – we’ve always figured there was going to be a two-person race, and it looks like Newt is the last person standing to get to be the other person besides Mitt Romney. I think it’s going to be a fascinating race. I don’t know what’s going to happen.

The Tea Party’s not going to have a big effect in the General Election, but it has had a really big effect on the Republican primary, and so I don’t know, Tavis. If I were to make a prediction, it wouldn’t be any good for more than about 24 hours.

Tavis: In 10 seconds, Barney Frank announcing that he’s going to retire. How does that hurt the Democrats, to have a major leader step aside?

Dean: It hurts the Democrats because he’s incredibly knowledgeable about the banking and the finance industry. It always is tough when somebody who really, really knows a lot leaves Congress. He really has been a great leader for the whole country, not just for the Democrats.

Tavis: Doctor, Governor, Chairman Dean, always good to have you on this program. Thanks for your insights, sir.

Dean: Thank you.

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Last modified: November 29, 2011 at 3:13 pm