Dean: Saddam doesn't change my mind about Iraq

Displaying the graciousness of a front-runner, the Democratic candidate gives Bush a pass for a day on Iraq -- but keeps pummeling him on everything else.

By Mark Follman
Published December 15, 2003 7:03AM (EST)

If Howard Dean was taken aback when the capture of Saddam Hussein was announced Sunday morning, he was smart enough not to show it. Campaigning in West Palm Beach, Fla., when he heard the news, the former Vermont governor was not only more generous to the White House than he has been since he started running, he was more generous than any of his rivals -- the sure sign of a front-runner. "This is a great day of pride in the American military, a great day for the Iraqis, a great day for the American people and, frankly, a great day for the administration," he told reporters. "This is a day to celebrate the fact that Saddam's been caught. We'll have to wait to see what happens to the campaign later."

But at an enthusiastic fundraising event in San Francisco on Sunday evening, Dean made it clear that the capture of the Iraqi dictator had not changed his strong antiwar position. "I congratulate our troops on catching Saddam Hussein," Dean told a crowd of about 1,800 supporters at the Masonic Auditorium, who were entertained by the singers Bonnie Raitt and David Crosby before Dean took the stage. "He is a bad person and we are all better off with him in captivity, but you should know that my views on Iraq have not changed one bit."

Noting that he would be giving a major foreign policy speech in Los Angeles on Monday, Dean said he wouldn't comment in any more detail on Iraq, and from there it was business as usual. He attacked President Bush for what he called misguided Medicare legislation, the mushrooming federal budget deficit, his tax cuts for the rich, and the big story of the week before Saddam was transformed from a scary tyrant to a confused-looking old man with a mangy beard submitting docilely to an oral examination: Bush administration-sanctioned corporate cronyism. "Halliburton [got] a huge no-bid contract [in Iraq]. Halliburton pays the vice president of the United States money every year in deferred compensation, which is not illegal, but it's a violation of the federal ethics code," Dean told the crowd. "Capitalism without rules is like a hockey game without a referee. We have lost our referee because we have a president of the United States who cares about one percent of corporations, and not about ordinary Americans."

The question on everyone's mind, of course, was what Saddam's capture -- the most significant victory in Iraq for the Bush administration since the fall of Baghdad -- would do to the campaign of the man who built much of his early campaign momentum by blasting the Bush administration for its war policy. His pro-war rivals immediately seized the opportunity to attack Dean: Sen. Joe Lieberman, in a statement that seemed ready-scripted for GOP ads in October, told reporters, "If Howard Dean had his way, Saddam Hussein would be in power today, not in prison."

Not surprisingly in this most liberal, antiwar and anti-Bush of American cities, some Dean supporters expressed unflinching confidence that Dean could unseat Bush in November 2004. But others, while reiterating their faith in Dean, admitted they were worried that Saddam's capture would buoy Bush and harm their candidate.

Nan Joesten, an attorney from San Francisco, thought Dean handled the news well. "I think he was very generous with his comments this morning, and that was the right thing to do. I didn't expect him to say more than he did today." And Joesten didn't think Saddam's capture should be viewed as a vindication for the Bush administration's unilateralist war policy. "I would hope we could catch the guy with all those troops over there. But what about the war on terrorism and Osama Been Forgotten?"

"I think the bottom line is that many of us still don't believe we belong in Iraq, and Saddam's capture doesn't change that," commented Hank Leeper, a home builder from Alameda, Calif. "I think all Americans should be glad and relieved that this hideous individual has been captured, but there are still so many things wrong with this administration and this country right now. International relations is one area where President Bush is really doing a lot of damage to our country."

Doreen Gluckin, a physician who lives in San Francisco and who was an undergraduate classmate of Dean's at Yale University, said her personal knowledge of the candidate convinced her he would make a strong president.

"Howard Dean was a person of integrity as a 19-year-old, and fundamentally he's a decent, engaged individual," she said. "I have absolute confidence in him, and that includes issues of foreign policy. The man is smart. I think he's a heck of a lot smarter than George W. Bush, and he's willing to be much more inclusive in the way he thinks about the United States' role in world affairs." For Gluckin, those affairs go well beyond Iraq. "There's North Korea, there's Iran, a lot of other pressing things in the world. I think Bush has damaged us with our traditional allies, and I think that's a big mistake."

But some Dean supporters expressed fear that the capture of Saddam would be used to perfection by the Bush team. "I felt both good and bad when I heard the news this morning," said Mehrdad Moayedzadeh, a young Iranian-American man from Emeryville, Calif., who formerly worked in the high tech sector but has been a full-time volunteer for the Dean campaign for the last six months. "I felt great that we got Saddam, but it was also worrisome, because I thought, 'How is the Bush camp going to use this to its advantage?' They're already putting out commercials about the war on terrorism, and using these kinds of fear tactics."

Dean's defiance of such fear mongering is a key reason Moayedzadeh is so staunchly behind the former Vermont governor. "I'm pissed off at the Democratic Party for its failure to stand up to Bush," he said. "But Dean stands outside all of that. And I think the question of Iraq's future is much bigger than what happened today. I'm one of those people who believe in the 'vast right-wing conspiracy' of Republicans. I'm worried about what they're doing to this country."

Mark Follman

Mark Follman is Salon's deputy news editor. Read his other articles here.

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