Health Care's Jilted Crusader

No matter the Cabinet snub, the barely buried hatchet with Rahm, the humiliating exit from the DNC—Howard Dean is tirelessly evangelizing Obamacare, whether the president wants him to or not.

Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP Photo

The doctor’s upper lip is so stiff these days, he might want to write himself a prescription for a muscle relaxant.

Howard Dean—physician turned governor, presidential candidate, and Democratic National Committee chairman—is recovering from an overdose of public humiliation administered by President Barack Obama’s inner circle. Now the Man from Vermont is uncomplainingly soldiering onward in the health-insurance-reform battle—a happy warrior for Obamacare.

“Hard to argue with the results, isn’t it?—he said in a self-satisfied way,” Dean quips.

“It’s been horrendous,” the 60-year-old Dean tells me cheerfully about crisscrossing the country and going on television to evangelize for a government-run “public option” in whatever legislation emerges this fall from the congressional sausage grinder. “It’s worse than when I was the DNC chair. Basically I’ve been on the road for three weeks with one day off in Vermont—less time than I’d like, especially at a beautiful time of year like this.”

Dean is earning his living on the lecture circuit, as a regular contributor to CNBC and as a frequent guest and occasional substitute host on its sister cable outlet MSNBC, and as an adviser to a blue-chip Washington lobbying firm, a piquant irony for man who inveighed against the influence of corporate lobbyists during the 2004 campaign. In some ways the doctor’s wanderings can be seen as an extended book tour for Howard Dean’s Prescription for Real Healthcare Reform, a sharp critique of, among other things, private health-insurance companies and their slavish devotion to Wall Street, and an impassioned argument for taxpayer-funded health care available to all.

“I was going to do this no matter what—whether I was in the administration or out of the administration,” Dean tells me. “When I took the DNC chairman’s job, it wasn’t because I couldn’t wait to see a Democratic president. It was because I couldn’t wait to see major reform happen in America, and I knew there was no possibility of that with a Republican president. When Barack Obama became president, it was the beginning, not the end.”

Dean has been exhorting, even hectoring, Democrats in the House and Senate to pass a health-care overhaul without Republicans, arguing that bipartisanship is unnecessary and unattainable. A man known more for blunt talk than diplomacy, Dean went on CBS’s Face the Nation on Sunday to call the “pull the plug on Grandma” musings of Iowa’s Chuck Grassley—the ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee and someone the president has singled out for praise—“despicable.” Days earlier, on MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow Show, Dean had lectured Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, a conservative Montana Democrat, that it was time to stop dithering and drop Grassley and other Republicans over the side.

“They’ve gotta behave themselves. They’ve got to straighten up and fly right and get going here,” Dean declared. “They’ve got to buckle down and get it done.” Hear that, Mr. Chairman?

The doctor has been operating as a sole practitioner, independent of the Obama White House, which has treated him with clinical severity. The most painful blow—which even some of Dean’s critics describe as “disgraceful”—came in January, when the president named Virginia Governor Tim Kaine to replace Dean as chairman of the Democratic National Committee, a post Dean held for four years, and the Obama-ites banished him from the announcement ceremony at DNC headquarters.

“That was unprecedented—he was the sitting elected chairman and he wasn’t allowed to come to an event in his own building? Unbelievable,” says a brand-name national Democrat. Another party loyalist, who believes Dean’s partisan health-care crusade is quixotic and counterproductive, blames the president personally for this show of disrespect. How could a politician as sensitive to appearances as Obama, this Democrat argues, permit such a thing to happen unless he wanted it to?

The bad blood can be traced to Dean’s bitter clashes with White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel back when he was a Chicago congressman and chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Emanuel was openly irate about Dean’s policy of funneling scarce resources to the state parties at the expense of the campaign committees. Obama’s chief strategist, David Axelrod, was equally derisive, once slamming Dean—who’d referred to the GOP as “brain-dead”—for “gratuitously insulting 50 million Americans who call themselves Republicans, some of whom we hope will vote Democrat.”

An April bury-the-hatchet lunch at the White House with Emanuel and Axelrod certainly lowered the temperature—and Dean calls it “a positive interchange—I absolutely enjoyed it.” But few believe the hatchet is buried so deep that it can’t be quickly retrieved.

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“Rahm,” says the brand-name Democrat, “carries a grudge with him into the fucking coffin.”

The Obama-ites have also complained that Dean has tried to take too much credit for the victories of the 2006 and 2008 election cycles—especially a vaunted 50-state strategy that his detractors say was underfunded and ineffectual until the Obama campaign executed its own 50-state strategy with manpower, money, and discipline. But Dean continues to take credit for the DNC’s triumphs. “Hard to argue with the results, isn’t it?—he said in a self-satisfied way,” Dean quips.

“When he does that,” says the Democratic source about the Obama-ites, “it just drives them crazy.”

Dean, who campaigned hard for Obama, was conspicuously absent from the Cabinet short lists—he’d wanted to be considered for secretary of Health and Human Services—and the Obama-ites floated his name for surgeon general only after he’d told them he wasn’t interested.

“That’s the president’s prerogative,” Dean says. “I think what you do in a situation like that is you move forward in whatever way you can, and I found a way to effectively contribute to the policy debate—which is to shore up the president’s original bill [with the public option] and work hard on that.”

Lloyd Grove is editor at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for The Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.