Howard Dean served as Governor of Vermont from 1991 to 2003 and as Chairman of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) from 2005 to 2009. Under his governorship, Vermont passed 11 balanced budgets, twice lowered income taxes, passed the nation’s first civil unions bill, and expanded a universal healthcare program for children and pregnant women. Dean formulated the DNC’s “50-state strategy” to build a Democratic Party infrastructure at local levels across the country. He was also a candidate for the 2004 Democratic nomination for president. Governor Dean shared his thoughts with The Politic on presidential politics and foreign policy.
The Politic: What is the single biggest piece of practical advice you, as a former presidential candidate, have for those hitting the campaign trail for the first time? For example, should candidates have an ample supply of hand sanitizer or sleeping pills?
[Laughter]. I think you have to have a very clear message, and you have to stand for some principle that everybody can understand.
The Politic: What is one element of campaigning that you were not prepared for? Anything you found particularly fatiguing about which you would caution others?
Don’t get yourself over-scheduled.
The Politic: Early in July, Senator Bernie Sanders said, “I think it is insane that Democrats do not have a 50 state strategy.” What do you, as the pioneer of the 50-state strategy, make of this comment?
Well, actually Hillary said she did have a 50-state strategy and intended to run one when she announced, so I thought that was very helpful. We do need a 50-state strategy. You need to be everywhere. You’re not going to spend the same amount of money in Idaho, which is not likely to vote Democratic as you would in Iowa, which might, but we need to reach out to all Americans; that’s what a 50-state strategy is.
The Politic: If the Democratic nominee loses in 2016, what will be the biggest reason?
First of all, I don’t think they’re going to lose. Second of all, prospectively that is an impossible question to answer. We’re about to enter a race where anything could happen at any time.
The Politic: If we can’t predict the future, let’s look to the past. You have advocated taking a strong stance on the Iran negotiations. You told Joe Scarborough that we should walk away from the negotiating table to strengthen our position. Now that a deal has been reached, how do you feel about it?
I don’t think all the provisions of the deal were revealed to the public, so it is hard for me to say. My view is that this deal needs to be linked to human rights, and it hasn’t been. There are 2,500 Iranian dissidents who we promised to protect; we’ve failed to do so. I would like some commitment from the United States government, which is a very dangerous commitment 10 years ago, that these people will not waste their lives as a result of our wishing to have a closer relationship with Iran.
The Politic: I’m curious about your take on the politics of this deal since you teach a course at Yale about the politics of foreign policy.
It’s problematic that the deal has been signed, so at this point we’re not likely to get a better deal. Each member has to decide for themselves what the likelihood of success is of this deal. In theory, this deal could stabilize relations with Iran. The Iranians have a very long history of not coming close to keeping their word, so the risk is that we will have to reimpose sanctions, which is diplomatically difficult. It’s very, very complicated to assess this.
The Politic: Do you think Democrats have sufficient political cover to vote against the White House if that is what they believe to be best for the country?
I don’t think this comes down to what the consequences are for individual politicians. I think this comes down to a calculation of what the consequences are for the entire country. I discard some of the extremist views of somebody like Senator Tom Cotton who appears not to be interested in the facts. Nonetheless, for people who are more moderate and thoughtful, this is a very difficult issue to sort out.
The Politic: Since we started with a fun question, let’s end with a fun question. Who is your dark horse for 2016? Who can come out of the blue and take voters and the media by surprise?
Somebody already has: Donald Trump!
The Politic: Do you think the Trump campaign will implode in the near future?
I think it’s a lot less likely than I thought a week ago. I’ve seen some focus groups—I’ve seen some numbers; that Donald Trump is leading the pack nationally is not a big deal. But that he is leading the pack in Florida, which is home to two other presidential candidates, both of whom have close to 100% name recognition, is just shocking. Trump has a much better chance than I thought he did.