Will the Real Howard Dean Please Stand Up?

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In Indianola, Iowa, last week, Howard Dean said the most amazing thing. He was talking about free trade. He said that if his trade policy—a tax on products from countries that don't meet labor and environmental standards—was enacted there would be some bad news: "Prices will go up at your local Wal-Mart." But, he added, there would be good news too. American jobs would be protected. Immigrants would be less likely to come to America, since their wages at home would probably increase. A stable middle class would be created in developing countries.

Let's leave aside the merits of the argument, which are dubious at best. Let's go back to "Prices will go up at your local Wal-Mart." Citizen Dean is now on record in favor of higher taxes and higher prices. This is either refreshingly candid, remarkably courageous or stupendously boneheaded—perhaps a bit of all three. And it leaves me with a real Dean conundrum. After a year of exposure to rampaging Deaniocracy, I still can't figure the guy out.

On the one hand, Dean is doing many of the things I've always admired in politicians. He is bold; he projects confidence and strength—the latter a quality not often found in Democrats. He is willing, obviously, to tell audiences some unpleasant truths. He is also gloriously free of the rhetorical, demographic and intellectual shackles that come with political consultants, pollsters and the other skittish, spineless purveyors of the conventional wisdom. He not only speaks plain English, he speaks unafraid English. Consequently, he has reopened the Democratic Party—formerly a political nursing home—to idealistic young people. His position on the most important issue, the war in Iraq, still makes sense: there was no immediate threat and therefore no casus belli.

But there is a monumental "on the other hand" with Dean. There is a recklessness about the man, an adolescent screw-you defiance that runs much deeper than the steady stream of gaffes produced by his projectile candor. In Exeter, N.H., last month I watched as he called the moderate Democratic Leadership Council "the Republican wing of the Democratic Party." I could see the "Republican wing" dig occur to him as he was talking about the need to bring Democrats together. His face lit up, his eyes danced, and he couldn't resist the pleasure of the zinger, even though it undercut his intended message and might cost him support down the road. He knew exactly what he was doing.

The carelessness extends to many of Dean's policy statements. His position on trade, for example. Dean assumes that the threat of American tariffs would force countries like China to raise salaries and standards—but such a threat would merely be another form of the arrogant, ineffective unilateralism that Dean has rightly criticized in Iraq. Trade sanctions require global cooperation. Recent history suggests that most countries, including those of the European Union, are more interested in low prices than in human rights (especially in China). In any case, as Bill Clinton used to say, the factory jobs that have gone away aren't coming back, and the only way to create new ones is the hard way—through innovation and a better-educated work force. But Dean's brand of straight talk leaves little room for complexity, and his self-proclaimed "intuitive" style leaves plenty of room for error.

My Dean problem, though, runs deeper than policy. I'm not sure how all the pieces of his personality fit together. I don't know how his almost casual anger and adolescent taunting coexist with the patient idealism inherent in his belated decision to become a doctor. In my experience, even the most arrogant doctors tend to be careful sorts, but Dean is noisy and precipitate.

He has trafficked in rumors, as when he mentioned on National Public Radio that there was "an interesting theory" that the President was told in advance by the Saudis about the Sept. 11 attacks. He quickly disavowed the theory, but no responsible politician, much less a candidate for President, should raise such slander without firm proof. I wonder about his often blatant cynicism—how he could suddenly, after insisting that his faith was a private matter, say last week that God had inspired his decision to allow gay civil unions. I admire his wife's choice not to be involved in the campaign and his own choice not to take a maudlin autobiographical path on the stump, but these decisions leave a void. They make it harder to know what sort of man he is. I wonder how he delivered bad news to his patients.

All this, and a certain amount of journalistic voyeurism, lead me to hope that Dean doesn't wrap up the nomination too quickly. We don't know enough about him yet. I'd like to see how he fares in a crisis. Clinton died half a dozen times in 1992 and always showed a winning resilience. In 2000 George W. Bush was clobbered in New Hampshire and showed a ruthlessness in demolishing John McCain in South Carolina that he later repeated in the Florida ballot dispute. Howard Dean has had a relatively easy ride so far. I want to see how he holds it together if he loses a crucial primary or two.