Howard Dean Splits the Left

The former Democratic Party leader’s “kill the bill” battle cry has rallied some grassroots progressives—and sent other former allies scrambling to distance themselves from his cause.

Howard Dean—the former Democratic National Committee chairman who went rogue this week, declaring in television interviews and a Washington Post op-ed that senators should vote “no” on the current, public option-free health-care bill—is now splitting the progressive movement down the middle, with several influential players distancing themselves from this onetime spokesman for reform.

The criticism goes beyond the White House, where on Thursday morning, senior adviser David Axelrod called Dean’s position “insane.” Though Dean was a featured speaker throughout the spring and early summer at Health Care for America events around the country, today the coalition, representing more than 1,000 liberal organizations, is distancing itself from Dean’s statements.

Dean is “not a spokesperson for HCAN,” the group’s national communications director told The Daily Beast. “He doesn’t speak for us, he speaks for himself.”

“He’s not a spokesperson for HCAN,” the group’s national communications director, Jacki Schechner, told The Daily Beast. “He doesn’t speak for us, he speaks for himself.”

Although HCAN continues to call for passage of health-care reform with a public option included, the group is not taking a position on how best to achieve that goal in the crucial last stages of the legislative debate. “That’s a little tricky,” Schechner admitted, but said Dean’s position was off the table. “As far as encouraging people to vote no, I think that’s counterproductive in terms of getting health reform done in a timely manner. What we’re saying now is, ‘let’s get this fixed.’”

Benjamin Sarlin: Ralph Nader on Obama’s Health-Care Woes In a conference call with reporters Thursday afternoon, SEIU President Andy Stern, one of most powerful players in national liberal politics, avoided the present tense when referring to Dean’s leadership of the health-care reform movement. “He’s obviously someone we’ve been close to,” Stern said. Unlike Dean, Stern supports getting the health-care reform bill out of the Senate as soon as possible, even without the presence of a public-insurance option, the policy on which the progressive movement has pinned much of its enthusiasm since March. “We have no belief that these senators are going to do any better,” said Stern, whose group boasts more than 2 million members nationwide.

Stern’s split with Dean is particularly noteworthy, since the two have been close allies in the past. Stern’s union endorsed Dean’s campaign for president back in 2003.

“There is only one truth that is unimpeachable about health care,” Stern continued. “The longer we wait, the worse it gets. … We think it’s time for the senators to take a vote. Let the chips fall where they may. Let the bill move to conference.”

Stern said that in the conference committee, in which the Senate and House versions of the bill will be merged, he hopes certain policies will be made more progressive, such as increasing the number of middle-class Americans who will be eligible for government subsidies to help them purchase insurance coverage.

Other liberals take a more skeptical view, noting that legislation tends to be watered down, not made more aggressive, by conference committees. “If anyone is saying they want to just pass this and ‘make it better in conference,’ that’s a bag of bulls—,” wrote Firedoglake blogger and Netroots leader Jane Hamsher in an email to The Daily Beast. “We support reconciliation,” added Hamsher, a pioneer in online political fundraising.

Budget reconciliation is a controversial procedural maneuver that would allow Democrats to pass some elements of health-care reform with a simple 51-senator majority, instead of a filibuster-proof 60 votes. But the White House and Democratic leaders have shown little willingness to embrace that strategy, and are seemingly focused now on passing the Senate bill, not on perfecting it.

That’s the approach Dean finds so galling. “In Washington, when major bills near final passage, an inside-the-Beltway mentality takes hold,” he wrote in the Post. “Any bill becomes a victory.”

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But if Dean’s view has alienated some liberal leaders, it’s made him a cult hero among others—at a time when polls show grassroots Democrats are growing increasingly skeptical of the watered-down health-care proposal. After Dean hit the media with his “just say no” message, the former Vermont governor’s PAC, Democracy for America, was able to raise $50,000 in just a few hours from a single email solicitation, according to DFA Political Director Charles Chamberlain.

Beltway progressives’ focus on a pre-Christmas schedule for health-care reform, regardless of certain policy details, is “Washington baloney,” Chamberlain said. “The question isn’t about timing. The question is about a quality bill.”

But Chamberlain also says that, at least for now, DFA is a one-issue organization, with no specific policy goals for after the health-care debate draws to a close. “It’s going to really depend on what our members are interested in focusing on,” he said.

The political calculus couldn’t be more different for the SEIU’s Andy Stern, whose union has a broad agenda for the coming year, from an immigration overhaul to more spending on job creation. On all those efforts, the broader progressive movement will have to continue to work with a White House and Senate that seem increasingly moderate and risk-averse.

Perhaps signaling a move toward compromise, Stern said Thursday that even if health-care reform emerges from conference committee without a public option or other progressive priorities, it won’t necessarily be worth scuttling the effort entirely. SEIU members will then “vote on whether we accept what it is or wait for another day,” he said. “That will be a very hard decision.”

Howard Dean, though, has already made his choice. And that has many Democrats wishing he’d quiet down. Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, himself an outspoken proponent of a strong public option, said on Wednesday that Dean’s words were “nonsense, and it’s irresponsible, and coming from him as a physician, it's stunning.”

Dana Goldstein is an associate editor and writer at The Daily Beast. Her work on politics, women’s issues, and education has appeared in The American Prospect, Slate, BusinessWeek, The New Republic, and The Nation.