Jewish World Review June 26, 2003 / 26 Sivan, 5763

Zev Chafets

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Consumer Reports

A Dem leaps in
and lands on his face | Last Sunday on "Meet the Press," host Tim Russert asked Howard Dean if he knew the size of the American military. "Somewhere in the neighborhood of 1 or 2 million," the former governor of Vermont replied. (The correct answer is 1.4 million.)

Now, half a million is a fairly large margin of error for someone who comes from a state of 608,000 people. Especially if that someone wants to be commander-in-chief of the armed forces. When Russert pointed this out, Dean - who evidently regarded the whole subject as a trick - snapped: "That's like asking me who the ambassador to Rwanda is."

Yeah, Rwanda, that dumb place. Nothing ever happens there.

A different Democratic candidate might have chosen a less offensive example of obscurity. But Dean is a prep-school aristocrat who lives in a state with a black population of about 3,000. African genocide is no big deal in Vermont. If some black Democrats were offended, they were hardly alone. Dean seemed to go out of his way to antagonize every core Democratic constituency. It would have been a courageous performance if it weren't so obviously unintentional - and so oddly confused.

Gays? Dean doesn't think the government should recognize Canadian same-sex marriages - but he's for gay civil unions. Seniors? He isn't sure he favors the Bush-Kennedy Medicare drug benefit - but then again, he might, even though "it won't work." Gun laws? He opposes federal gun control as a matter of states' rights - but he's wouldn't repeal any gun laws. Working people? He'd consider raising the retirement age to 68 - but he hasn't really decided. Bleeding hearts? Dean supports the death penalty - even though he realizes it is mostly ineffective and morally wrong.

On the subject of national security, Dean admitted he knows just about nothing. If elected, he'll hire people who do.

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He'll also need a memory coach. Dean said he couldn't decide on a constitutional amendment to balance the budget - "You know, I go back and forth on that one" - at which point Russert reminded him that he has publicly supported one for years.

He also forgot that in 1995 he came out in favor of cutting Social Security. Confronted with that piece of lost history, Dean went into a riff, claiming the Social Security fund would be in fine shape until 2040 "or something like that," an assertion so wrong the normally unflappable Russert blurted, "No, no, no, no, no, no."

On just two of his party's core issues was Dean coherent and unequivocal. He favors raising taxes "back to the Clinton era" level. And he is adamantly opposed to parental notification for minors - even 12-year-olds - seeking an abortion. Not, I would guess, a winning combo, even in the Democratic primaries.

Then there was the matter of Dean's military service. Like many young men in 1971, he got a medical deferment. Unlike most of his fellow deferees, he marked the event by spending 80 days skiing Ajax Mountain in Colorado. It was late in the interview when he related this story, and Russert listened with shell-shocked equanimity. He had just presided over perhaps the worst performance by a presidential candidate in the history of television.

The day after "Meet the Press" fiasco, Dean went back to Vermont and officially declared his candidacy for the Democratic nomination. I can't wait to see him on "Face the Nation."

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JWR contributor Zev Chafets is a columnist for The New York Daily News. Comment by clicking here.

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08/21/02: No time for weak knees on Iraq
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08/13/02: Fight it out now
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