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Dean's not-so-straight talk on Bush and the war

By Brendan Nyhan
December 17, 2003

Former Vermont Governor Howard Dean, the front-runner in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, has stated that he is "running as the candidate who is not afraid to tell the truth" and proclaimed that he is "going to be the John McCain of this race," referring to the Arizona senator who is famous for so-called "straight talk."

However, in the last few weeks, Dean has not lived up to his claims of honesty and candor, which are frequently cited as motivating factors by supporters. Most recently, as Slate's Timothy Noah has shown, he irresponsibly suggested President Bush had advance warning of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, failed to take responsibility for his remarks when asked about them and then dissembled about having done so. In addition, as two of Dean's rivals have pointed out, his attacks on the candidates who supported the October 2002 Congressional resolution authorizing military action against Iraq actually hinge on a fairly subtle distinction that he often fails to mention - namely, Dean supported an alternate resolution that would also have granted such authority, but the resolution he supported required that Bush make additional certifications to Congress before taking action.

The "interesting theory" about Bush and Sept. 11

Dean's statement suggesting Bush had advance warning of the Sept. 11 attacks came during a Dec. 1 appearance on National Public Radio's "The Diane Rehm Show." During the interview, Dean discussed Bush's interactions with an independent commission headed by former New Jersey governor Thomas H. Kean that is investigating the attacks [Real Player audio - 42:50 in clip]:

DEAN: There is a report, which the president is suppressing evidence for, which is a thorough investigation of 9/11.
REHM: Why do you think he's suppressing that report?
DEAN: I don't know. There are many theories about it. The most interesting theory that I've heard so far, which is nothing more than a theory, I can't -- think it can't be proved, is that he was warned ahead of time by the Saudis. Now, who knows what the real situation is, but the trouble is by suppressing that kind of information, you lead to those kinds of theories, whether they have any truth to them or not, and then eventually they get repeated as fact. So I think the president is taking a great risk by suppressing the clear -- the key information that needs to go to the Kean commission.

In this statement, Dean tried to have it both ways, promulgating an unknown and unproven theory while not taking responsibility for it. Indeed, he blamed Bush for the emergence of such theories even as he repeats one himself.

On December 7, "Fox News Sunday" host Chris Wallace asked Dean about this "theory":

WALLACE: The most interesting theory is that the president was warned ahead of time by the Saudis. Why would you say that, Governor?
DEAN: Because there are people who believe that. We don't know what happened in 9/11. Tom Kean is trying to get some information from the president...
WALLACE: Do you believe that?
DEAN: ... which doesn't -- no, I don't believe that. I can't imagine the president of the United States doing that. But we don't know, and it'd be a nice thing to know.
WALLACE: I'm just curious why you would call that the most interesting theory.
DEAN: Because it's a pretty odd theory. What we do believe is that there was a lot of chatter that somehow was missed by the CIA and the FBI about this, and that for some reason we were unable to decide and get clear indications of what the attacks what were going to be. Because the president won't give the information to the Kean commission we really don't know what the explanation is.

Again, Dean claimed that Bush's failure to fully cooperate with the commission justifies his repetition of an unproven rumor, which he elevated to the status of something "we don't know" that would be "a nice thing to know."

Then, during the Democratic debate in Durham, NH on December 9, Dean was again asked about the remark, and blatantly dissembled about what he had said:

SCOTT SPRADLING, WMUR-TV: Governor Dean, you had once stated that you thought it was possible that the president of the United States had been forewarned about the 9/11 terrorist attacks. You later said that you didn't really know.
A statement like that, don't you see the possibility of some Democrats being nervous about statements like that leading them to the conclusion that you are not right for being the next commander in chief?
DEAN: Well, in all due respect, I did not exactly state that. I was asked on Fox fair and balanced news that... (laughter) I was asked why I thought the president was withholding information, I think it was, or 9/11 or something like that. And I said, well, the most interesting theory that I heard, which I did not believe, was that the Saudis had tipped him off.
We don't know why the president is not giving information to the Kean commission. I think that is supposed to be investigated by Congress. I think it's a serious matter. I agree with Wes Clark, the president is not fighting terrorism. And we need to know what went wrong before 9/11.
I did not believe, and I made it clear on the Fox News show that I didn't believe that theory, but I had heard that. And there are going to be a lot of crazy theories that come out if the information is not given to the Kean commission as it should be.

Spradling was obviously asking Dean about his comments on "The Diane Rehm Show," not Fox News, yet Dean referred to his comments on Fox (again disavowing the rumor while repeating it and blaming Bush for its existence). Most importantly, as Noah points out, this mischaracterization allowed Dean to say "I made it clear on the Fox News show that I didn't believe that theory." However, he did not include such an explicit caveat during his original appearance on Rehm's show.

Finally, in a story in the Washington Times today, Dean spokesperson Jay Carson continued to disingenuously spin the issue:

"Governor Dean has been very clear that he doesn't believe in or subscribe to that theory," said Dean spokesman Jay Carson. "He simply pointed out the need for the Bush administration to be more cooperative with the 9/11 commission so that theories like that could be put to rest.
"The irony here is that the Republicans are trafficking this supposed claim all over the place, thereby pushing it in a way that it never would have been possible," he said. "Governor Dean was clear that he didn't actually believe it."

Notably, when Vice President Dick Cheney employed a similar tactic in September, suggesting that Iraq may have been connected to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks without presenting any evidence of such a connection, Dean slammed Cheney and one of his foreign policy advisors told the Boston Globe that it is "totally inappropriate for the vice president to continue making these allegations without bringing forward" proof.

Dean, Iraq and the war resolutions

Dean has also implied in a number of cases that he opposed giving the president authority to take action in Iraq. Yet on most of those occasions, Dean has not explained that, at the time, he supported an alternate Congressional resolution that would also have granted the president authority to take unilateral action if he made additional certifications to Congress before doing so. Dean contends having to make these certifications would have prevented Bush from taking action, but this subtle distinction is often lost in his rhetoric.

The Congressional resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraq passed in October 2002 with the support of Dean rivals Rep. Dick Gephardt, D-MO, Senator John Kerry, D-MA, Senator Joe Lieberman, D-CT, and Senator John Edwards, D-NC. As CNN reported at the time, it "requires Bush to declare to Congress either before or within 48 hours after beginning military action that diplomatic efforts to enforce the U.N. resolutions have failed. Bush also must certify that action against Iraq would not hinder efforts to pursue the Al Qaeda terrorist network that attacked New York and Washington last year. And it requires the administration to report to Congress on the progress of any war with Iraq every 60 days." (Bush has taken these steps as required.)

Dean did not support this resolution. However, as Kerry and Gephardt have pointed out and as Ron Fournier reported last week in the Associated Press, Dean supported an alternate resolution known as Biden-Lugar:

[T]he former Vermont governor rarely mentions his support of a resolution by Sens. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., and Joe Biden, D-Del., that would have asked Bush to get a new U.N. resolution to enforce weapons inspections in Iraq.
If the United Nations had declined, the president would have had to make a formal determination that the Iraqi threat was so serious that the use of military force would be necessary.
Bush would have been required to send Congress a letter -- not seek a vote of approval -- before waging war, Kerry said. He argued there was no significant difference between the Lugar-Biden resolution and the one passed by Congress.
Dean acknowledged that the alternative resolution was not binding against the president, but argued that Bush would have somehow been more likely to use restraint.
"Biden-Lugar required the president to come back to Congress -- not for a vote," but only to certify that a number of actions were taken, including more diplomacy, Dean said. "Had the president done that, we would not have gone to war, because then he would have been forced to certify with his word ... all the claims he made that were not true."

Dean may believe that requiring additional certifications to Congress would have prevented war due to political considerations (Bush "would have been forced to certify with his word ... all the claims he made that were not true"), but this is an assertion about a hypothetical. It is undisputed, however, that Biden-Lugar would have granted the president authority to take unilateral action against Iraq if the UN failed to act and Bush satisfied the requirements of the legislation. Dean has implicitly acknowledged this distinction at times, such as a statement on the February 25, 2003 edition of PBS's "Newshour with Jim Lehrer" in which he said "What they [his rivals] voted for was to allow the president of the United States to attack Iraq unilaterally without going back to Congress." (my italics)

Yet Dean frequently obscures this nuanced difference in his attacks on his rivals for granting authority to Bush to wage unilateral war. For example, in a July 22, 2003 statement, Dean said, "Today, I ask some important questions of those in Congress who had the power to seek the truth nine months ago, who had the power to involve the American people in the debate prior to the Congressional vote, who had the power to ask the tough questions of the Administration, and yet voted to give the President blank check authority to go to war with Iraq anyway." Of course, "blank check authority" is vague and Dean does not explain why the resolution he supported was not a "blank check." This phrase could be reasonably interpreted to mean authority to wage war without needing further approval from Congress (which would have been granted under both resolutions) rather than failing to require additional certifications to Congress, which is the implicit distinction Dean is drawing.

The "blank check" phrase and similar attacks have been used by Dean frequently throughout his campaign without any explanation of the difference between the resolution he supported and the one that passed the Congress:

Senator Kerry, Senator Lieberman, Representative Gephardt, Senator Edwards, all gave the president a blank check to go to war in Iraq, putting people today in the position of having to decide whether we're going to spend $87 billion on health care or spend it in Iraq. (Democratic debate, 10/9/03)
I think it was a mistake for Congress to give the authority to the president to go into Iraq. (Democratic debate, 11/4/03)
Senator Kerry is talking about experience in foreign affairs. His experience led him to give the president of the United States a blank check to invade Iraq... The right thing to do would have been not to give George Bush that unilateral authority, as Senator Kerry, Senator Edwards, Representative Gephardt, General Clark recommended... I think we need somebody who's going to make independent judgments and not cede the role of Congress in making foreign policy and declaring war." (Democratic debate, 11/24/03)

A troubling pattern

This pattern of misleading and contradictory remarks is damaging to Dean's reputation, which was previously hurt by a false claim about Edwards and dissembling about his support for Medicare cuts during the 1990s. It also sets back the debates over Sept. 11 and Iraq, both of which have been plagued with deception and misinformation. While Dean frequently tells his supporters that they "have the power to take this country back," the power to set the record straight lies in his hands alone.

Update 12/18 8:16 PM EST: The language describing Cheney's statement on "Meet the Press" has been updated to better reflect the context in which it was made.

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