The Kennedy School of Government (KSG) was buzzing with excitement on Monday December 1, as the largest crowd yet gathered to view the live taping of the next installment of Hardball: Battle for the White House, with Vermont Governor Howard Dean and host Chris Matthews. The series, shown live on MSNBC Monday nights, gives students from the Harvard community the opportunity to ask questions of the Democratic Presidential candidates in a one hour program. Monday’s program was particularly energized given the candidate’s standing in the media as the frontrunner in the upcoming Democratic primary elections.
The Hardball series is drawing to a close with only one appearance remaining on Monday, December 8 with General Wesley Clark. The series has enjoyed tremendous student response and has focused the nation on the influence of the youth perspective in the upcoming elections. Howard Dean has been credited with seeing the importance of America’s youth from the start of his campaign, with one quarter of his donors under 30 years old.
Matthews focused in early on Dean’s status as the frontrunner in the elections. Before going live, Matthews polled the audience on who they believed was in the lead. When he called out Dean’s name, the crowd applauded and whistled loudly; when he asked about Representative Dick Gephardt, one person clapped. General Wesley Clark fared slightly better than Gephardt, but Dean was clearly the crowd favorite. Several times throughout the show, Dean emphasized his reluctance to embrace the title of frontrunner. “You know, I appreciate the label the media has put on me as the frontrunner, but the truth is not one single vote has been cast yet in any primary.”
Dean has served as Governor of Vermont since 1991. He has built his campaign upon intense opposition to the Bush Administration, particularly in the areas of the war in Iraq, the Bush tax cuts, and Health Care. Dean is a physician, and prior to entering politics, Dean shared a medical practice with his wife.
One of the most prominent aspects of Dean’s campaign has been his approach to fundraising. He has adopted a grassroots campaign, conducted over the Internet, which focuses on small donations. The strategy has been enormously successful. In the last quarter, the Dean campaign raised three times as much as any other candidate, with an average donation of $77 from 200,000 donors. The financial success of the fundraising campaign allowed Dean to become the first Democratic Presidential candidate to reject public funding. A student in the audience pushed Dean on the implications of his campaign finance decision, “How can you say you are committed to public financing, when you abandon the system because you can afford it, while others still abide by its limits?”
Dean responded, “Well, actually, I abandoned the system not because we could afford it, but because we could beat George Bush that way…our campaign is campaign finance reform.”
The Dean campaign has built momentum on his image as the most liberal candidate among the group of Democratic candidates. An audience member posed the question, “Have you allowed the media to portray you and your policies as more liberal than they actually are?” Dean acknowledged that the media’s portrayal of his views along the political spectrum is not always accurate, but denied responsibility for that. “I haven’t allowed them to do that. I don’t have any choice over what they do…I figure, the media will get around to figuring out something about me eventually, right around the time of the general election.”
A major issue that Dean has drawn attention for is his stance on same sex marriages. As Governor of Vermont, Dean signed the Civil Unions Act, granting full legal recognition to same-sex couples. Matthews chose to probe Dean on his choice to use the term “union” rather than “marriage.”
Dean responded, “First of all, marriage is none of the federal government’s business. Marriage is a state issue. We chose not to do gay marriage in our state. As president of the United States, if a state chooses to do gay marriage, that is their business.”
Another area of controversy for Dean has been his avoidance of the Vietnam draft. Dean obtained a deferment in 1970 by presenting medical papers regarding a back condition to the Army when called for a draft physical. Matthews aggressively probed Dean on this “draft-dodging” incident, pushing on the perceived inequities of Dean as a wealthy young student having the means to obtain medical evidence, while less privileged draftees may not have had these advantages. Charlie McGill (NH) felt that Dean’s response to Matthews’ questions weakened his standing. “After dodging Matthews’ repeated questions, Governor Dean admitted that he brought both x-rays and a letter from his doctor hoping to receive a deferment from the draft. It made me wonder: if he is a patriot enough to be President today, where was he during Vietnam?”
Matthews also raised the frequent criticism of Dean’s lack of foreign policy experience. In an answer to a question regarding how Dean plans to form his foreign and military policy strategy with no practical experience, Dean stated, “the other Democratic candidates and I all get advice from the same kinds of people, and in many cases the same people. Most people will advise many of the presidential candidates. And they do, and they’re very good people. People like Madeleine Albright, Sandy Berger.”
As the frontrunner in the election, Matthews appeared at times to hold Dean to a higher standard in pushing him to answer to his criticisms.
Many audience members felt that he stood up to the task. “I think he did a really good job in answering the criticisms about his lack of foreign policy experience and I also liked the emphasis he put on the important role the President of the United States has in resolving the conflict between the Palestinians and Israel,” said Kate Haviland (NH). “The marching band out front and the pro-Dean crowd made the place feel like a Howard Dean pep rally, but Matthews did a good job asking hard questions and pressing Dean on the issues. While I would have liked to hear more about what happens next in Iraq, you don’t often get a chance to see front-running Presidential candidates interviewed on live TV,” Chris Eisenberg (NA).
Students will have added one more opportunity to refine their views on the candidates next week, as the Hardball: Battle for the White House series concludes Monday night with General Wesley Clark at KSG.
Editor’s Note: Students interested in attending future Hardball tapings can enter the ticket lottery located on the IOP/KSG website:
//www.iop.harvard.edu/lottery.php. In addition, the Harbus is actively seeking students who are interested in covering this year’s political campaign – from both the left, the right, and in-between. If you are interested in covering politics for the Harbus, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.