Dean’s (In)experience as Governor of Vermont

Most critiques of Howard Dean’s electability have focused on his intemperate and inconsistent remarks on foreign and domestic policy. To be sure, these are cause for serious concern. Indeed, the latest USA Today poll on the former governor shows that he is the only major Democratic candidate with much higher negatives than positives among the general population.

But there is another reason to worry about Gov. Dean—his limited government and political experience, all in the tiny if wonderful state of Vermont. Simply put, one must ask if running that state provides the necessary experience to become the chief executive of the United States of America.

It is only fair that this question be posed. Dean has effectively criticized his opponents for being part of the DC establishment, and indeed most of them are. Dick Gephardt, former House Democratic leader, was elected to Congress in 1976. Joe Lieberman is in his third term in the Senate, John Kerry his fourth. True, John Edwards is only in his first term as senator, and Gen. Wesley Clark has never run for national office before, but Dean has still successfully cast himself as the fresh political face against a group of has-been traditional candidates.

But is Washington experience really such a bad thing? And is Dean’s preparation for the presidency really so strong? If he becomes the Democratic nominee, he will do so with less big-league political experience than any major party candidate in more than half a century.

Dean’s political career has been spent entirely in Vermont. The country’s 14th state, a wonderful land, and home to the fabled Green Mountain Boys who fought so valiantly against the British in the Revolutionary War, it is nonetheless a very, very small place. Its population of just over 600,000 ranks 49th among all states (and well under many counties in the country’s major metropolitan areas). Vermont’s largest city, Burlington, has just 40,000 citizens, and the capital of Montpelier where Dean has done his work as governor has 8,000.

Demographically, Vermont is full of great people—but almost all are white. Specifically, the state is about 97 percent white, 1 percent Hispanic, 1 percent Asian, 0.5 percent black, and the remainder native American and other groups. As such, Dean has extremely little experience dealing with the broad racial diversity that so characterizes the modern United States.

The size of Vermont’s economy, not surprisingly, is also at the bottom of the state rankings. Yet per capita income is roughly in the middle, as it has been for years, and unemployment is low (about 4 percent). Dean will naturally, and justifiably, try to boast about these facts if challenged about his political record and experience. But the flip side of these factoids is that, by the standards of the United States, governing Vermont is not very hard—no rampant poverty, little urban blight, few racial tensions.

Some will say that previous presidential candidates also have lacked the background of running large states or holding national office. This is false. George Bush and Ronald Reagan, though criticized for their inexperience when seeking the nation’s highest office, were both two-term governors of two of the largest states in the country. Michael Dukakis was governor of Massachusetts, with a population ten times that of Vermont. Ditto for former Georgia governor Jimmy Carter. Bush the father and Al Gore were vice presidents and members of Congress before running for the top office in the land.

Even Bill Clinton, pilloried as the chief executive of little old Arkansas, ran a state with a population of more than 2 million, substantial amounts of industry, four headquarters of Fortune 500 companies (to Vermont’s zero), and a demographic mix comparably complex to that of the country as a whole. Moreover, candidate Bill Clinton went out of his way to demonstrate a mastery of national and international economics and governance that Dean, in his obsession with Iraq, has not begun to match. Democrats may find

Democrats may find it impolite to raise such tough questions about Dean that go beyond matters of policy to questions of biography and background. But be assured, these are the sorts of attacks that Karl Rove and the RNC don’t even need to lace up their sneakers or break a sweat to prepare. Nominating the former governor of the nation’s smallest and least demographically diverse state is perhaps fine—but Democratic voters should at least think twice about what they are doing before committing to such an inexperienced candidate.