Howard Dean Sees Problems at the Top

A former candidate laments moral tone
Christopher Walsh

“Somebody has to be the figure to stand up and say this is right, this is wrong,” Howard Dean, the one-time presidential candidate and former Vermont governor, said this week in a discussion of President Donald Trump’s reaction to the violence in Charlottesville, Va., following a white supremacist rally there.

Echoing comments by other Democratic leaders, Mr. Dean said that the president lacked the moral compass necessary for a successful presidency and that he had led the way in a spasm of racist activity in recent weeks.

Governor Dean, who grew up in East Hampton and Manhattan and often returns to East Hampton Village, where his mother, Andree Dean, resides, was also critical of Republicans in Congress, saying too few of them have stood up to the white supremacists who organized the Charlottesville rally at which a woman was killed when a neo-Nazi intentionally drove his car into a crowd. The president, he said, “is leading the way in coddling them, telling them what nice people they are.”

On Aug. 12, the day of the rally, Mr. Trump blamed “many sides” for the confrontations between the roughly 500 marchers and many more counter-protesters. Two days later, he condemned neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan by name, but in a combative news conference the following day insisted that there were “very fine people” among the demonstrators. On Tuesday, at a campaign rally in Phoenix, he accused the news media, which he variously referred to as “damn dishonest,” “bad people,” “sick people,” and “the source of the division in our country,” of deliberately not reporting his remarks condemning white supremacist groups. Notably omitted was his prior contention that counter-protesters shared blame for the violence.

It was the latest controversy in an administration that has been marked by chaos through its first seven months, distracted by investigations into possible collusion with Russia’s attack on the 2016 election and the president’s business dealings, high-profile firings and resignations, and particularly hostile relations with political opponents and the news media. But none of this is surprising, said Mr. Dean, who is also a former chairman of the Democratic National Committee. “He thrives on chaos, and he has a terrible ability to pick people around him.” He pointed to Sebastian Gorka, a deputy assistant to the president, Stephen Miller, a senior adviser, and Stephen Bannon — “an avowed anti-Semite and racist” — who until his firing last week was the White House chief strategist.

President Trump, the governor said, “is a deeply disturbed man whose principal interest is making sure everybody knows who he is.” As a physician, Gov. Dean said that while he would not diagnose the president remotely, Mr. Trump “clearly has problems. . . . He’s clearly inconsistent; he frequently says things that are not true; he seems not to be concerned or interested about policy; he changes all the time. This is not the mark of a healthy man.”

Mr. Dean was the first Democrat to declare his intention to oppose President George W. Bush, filing paperwork to seek the presidency in 2002. He opposed the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and criticized fellow Democrats who supported it. “I happen to like George W. Bush personally, though I think his presidency was not so great for the country,” he said. Mr. Bush “has a firm set of principles, which he was consistent with,” and he surrounded himself with experienced professionals. “You have to have a set of moral principles that will shine through at important moments,” he said, citing Mr. Bush’s supportive remarks to Muslims following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York and Washington. “That’s moral principal, and every president has to have it. If they don’t, they’re a failure.”

In contrast to Charlottesville, both sides of the political aisle share blame for some of the conditions under which the president was elected, according to the former governor. Globalization and automation — and not international trade agreements — are responsible for the loss of manufacturing jobs, he said. “There are a lot of people in places like West Virginia and Kentucky where the well-paying jobs disappeared.”

But “the truth is, trade lifted over a billion people out of poverty, lifted people dramatically, which is what Trump discovered — getting rid of Nafta,” the North American Free Trade Agreement, “would cost millions of jobs. Both parties are guilty of demagoguery on trade, and the Democrats did that first. It has cost some people their jobs, but created millions in the United States. The notion to ‘get rid of free trade and jobs are coming back’ is not true, and both parties are guilty. People who are not highly skilled, not highly educated, are pushed to the margins of the economy, and they’re resentful about that.”

At the same time, “a lot of this is about trying to undo cultural changes that have happened over the last 40 years,” said Mr. Dean, who as governor signed the country’s first civil unions legislation into law. “Forty years ago, a black president, or two men marrying, was something nobody even thought about. It’s incredibly unsettling,” he said, to those unaccustomed to diverse, urban environments. Mr. Trump, who for some five years suggested that President Barack Obama was not born in the United States, “appealed to the worst in us. He very successfully and skillfully did that.”

Mr. Dean disagreed with the assertion on the right that race relations worsened under President Obama. “The polling says otherwise, but Obama’s presidency did a great deal for race relations in the long run,” he said. “First of all, these Nazi-Confederate rallies, the demonstrators on the right are always vastly outnumbered by demonstrators, mostly young people, who have different values and believe in American values. Two, I think one of the reasons we see agitation around race is that black Americans are no longer going to settle for second-class citizenship in any way. We just had a black president, so why should they be treated differently? In some ways we’re seeing a replay of the 1960s, without burning down the cities, for the most part.”

Democrats, who are a minority in the Senate, in the House of Representatives, and in two-thirds of state legislatures, can take heart, but only if they take action, said the former governor, who as chairman of the D.N.C. created the 50 State Strategy, a successful effort to make Democrats competitive in conservative states in 2006 and 2008.

Whether or not Charlottesville and its aftermath mark a turning point in Mr. Trump’s presidency, “the turning points I care about the most have to do with the new generation of Americans fully coming into politics,” he said. “Our strongest age group is that 18-to-35 demographic, and they vote overwhelmingly for Democrats. . . . The reason Republicans are engaged in voter suppression is because if everybody voted, we’d win every time. The state of the country is in this generation’s hands. If they vote, not just in the presidential but all down-ballot elections all the way to school board, they’ll have the kind of country they want. But if they don’t, the people in power will be ones like Trump and alt-right people.”

Mr. Dean will not seek elected office again, he said. Today, he teaches at the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs at Yale University and at the Peter S. Kalikow Center for the Study of the American Presidency at Hofstra University. He is also a consultant at Dentons, the world’s largest law firm.

The next president “should be under 50, or certainly under 55,” said Mr. Dean, who is 68. “It’s time for a new generation to get involved and actually start running things, and for mine to step back and coach.”

Mr. Trump’s election, he said, was a repudiation of the values held by most Americans under 35. “That was a terrible shock to them. Charlottesville is the confirmation. If you want to fight it off — the values of Trump — and want your own country back, you’d better do something about it.”