Howard Dean Walks It Back

After setting off a political firestorm last week for telling legislators to kill the Senate health-care bill, progressive leader Howard Dean walked back his opposition this morning on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” Instead of advising Congress to vote against the bill for not containing the public option, as he stridently declared on Thursday, Dean said the Senate bill had actually “improved” over the past few weeks, and that he would wait until the House and Senate bills were combined in the conference before passing judgment:

I would let this bill go to conference committee and see if we can fix this bill more… Let’s see what they add to this bill and make it work. If they can make it work without a public option, I’m all ears.

Dean’s comments signaled a significant about-face from his call to “kill the bill” last week, which created a sizable split within the progressive movement. Liberal legislators like Senator Jay Rockefeller slammed Dean’s opposition for being “nonsense” and “irresponsible,” and labor leader Andy Stern pointedly distanced himself from Dean’s remarks. Meanwhile, some left-wing activists began to celebrate the “enormous, rising tide of populism” against the Senate bill, and Republican like John McCain began seizing on Dean’s remarks as evidence that their opposition to the legislation was justified.

So what was it that prompted Dean to change his stance? For one thing, the White House made a serious effort to reach out to the famously tempestuous former governor, who has become the de facto spokesperson of the progressive movement. After initially characterizing Dean’s opposition as “insane,” White House adviser David Axelrod—who also appeared on “Meet the Press” today—softened his own criticismof the former governor on Friday. And this morning, Dean had confirmed that he and Axelrod had “actually talked back and forth throughout the week,” doubtlessly in the aftermath of his controversial op-ed.

But, more than anything else, it was Ben Nelson’s announcement yesterday that he would support the health-care bill that likely changed Dean’s political calculus. With Nelson on board, the Democrats now have the 60 votes they need to pass the Senate bill, effectively rendering Dean’s opposition to the legislation irrelevant. As Raina Kelley noted on The Gaggle last week, it’s clear that Dean, much like Joe Lieberman, craves attention and wants to remain in the game. After all, it was only two weeks ago that Dean had occupied a central place within the Senate negotiations that tried to introduce a Medicare buy-in as an alternative to the public option. While he attempted last week to use the failure of the public option as a new point of leverage, Dean only succeeded in alienating himself from the key players in the debate (and the flip-flops that riddled his other criticisms of the bill didn’t help his credibility). In the end, Dean wants to be at the negotiating table—not cast outside it—and he probably decided to adjust accordingly.

Of course, it’s entirely possible that Dean could revive his call to “kill the bill” once it moves out of the conference committee and back to Congress for a final vote. Sunday morning, he said he strongly supported the House version of the bill—and that even some of the House provisions didn’t go far enough, such as the effort to restrict the the ability of insurance companies to charge higher premiums for older people. Meanwhile, key moderates like Senator Kent Conrad are already insisting that the final legislation will closely resemble the more conservative Senate bill. That being said, by shifting his attention to the next battleground for the evolving legislation, Dean has at least returned to a far more reasonable—and relevant—place in the debate moving forward.