Health care needs champ

Progressives should welcome the presidential campaign of Howard Dean, the Vermont governor who is building a campaign based on the need for universal health care and corporate accountability.

Some progressive Democrats hope Dennis Kucinich, the Cleveland congressman and chair of the House Progressive Caucus, will make the race. Others urge Russ Feingold, the Wisconsin senator, to take up the cause. Reps. Jesse Jackson Jr. of Illinois and Marcy Kaptur of Ohio also are intriguing choices. But all those progressive pols would also be up for re-election in 2004. If any of them try the presidential primaries they are worthy of support, but quixotic races might jeopardize their places in Congress where their voices are needed.

Dean, however, is not seeking re-election this year after five terms, so he is free to run and he has filed his candidacy papers with the Federal Election Commission. If his chances of winning are remote, Sebastian Mallaby of the Washington Post suggested that Dean might serve as the Steve Forbes of 2004.

Forbes, you recall, was a spokesman for plutocracy in 1996 when he forced the flat tax into the Republican presidential debate. He got the eventual nominee, Bob Dole, to adopt a watered-down version of the regressive tax. The Republicans lost that year but after Bush's coup last year the Republican Congress awarded tax breaks for the wealthy that shows that the spirit of Forbes lives on.

Dean could put a focus in the 2004 debate on the need for universal health coverage. A medical doctor, Dean first proposed to insure all Vermonters in 1992. Dean lost that battle in 1993, as Bill and Hillary Clinton did in D.C. Unlike the Clintons, Dean kept at it and won approval for the "Dr. Dynasaur" program, which insures almost every child up to age 18. "Working poor" adults in families with incomes below 150% of the poverty line also are allowed to "buy into" Medicaid for a small fee. Those are major reasons that 92% of adult Vermonters and 96% of children have insurance coverage, among the best rates in the nation.

Dean also recently signed a law cracking down on drug company gifts to doctors who prescribe their expensive patented medicines instead of cheap generic alternatives. The law also expands the state's list of preferred drugs, which steers doctors and patients toward generics where appropriate. It revives a plan to extend drug discounts that the state has negotiated for poor Medicaid patients to Vermont's non-poor citizens. Drug companies blocked a similar plan in the courts a few years ago.

Meanwhile, the US House has adopted a bait and switch Medicare drug plan. Republicans probably will keep the Senate from adopting a more progressive drug plan. Then the GOP can brag that it passed a bill but the Democratic Senate didn't.

Dean does not propose a Canadian-style single-payer system, viewing it as an unrealistic goal in the current political climate. "I really don't care what kind of a system we have, but I know, when you go over to Congress and see all the folks spreading around money and giving $1,000 and up contributions to all the folks, we're not going to get a single-payer system," he said last April. In the interim, he proposes to encourage small businesses with 50 or fewer workers to buy into federal health insurance programs.

We'd be willing to take on "Harry and Louise" and their insurance company bosses over single-payer. But any action would be welcome that reduces the number of 39 million uninsured Americans -- most of whom are the working poor as businesses find it increasingly difficult to afford the rising costs of providing health coverage for their employees. Universal health care, however it is structured, could provide relief for workers and their employers. Democrats should be all over this issue.

As governor, Dean has clashed with the party's left over taxes and spending, particularly after he cut the budget rather than increase taxes when faced with a budget crisis upon taking office in 1991. Some Vermonters are suspicious because of his fiscal conservatism, but he has maintained taxes at a level needed to pay the bills. When the state piled up surpluses in the late '90s, he resisted Republican calls to slash taxes and instead used the windfalls for one-time public works projects and to pay down the state's debts. He was the first of the DP's class of '04 to call for rolling back Bush's tax cuts.

He also is a hero to gays for signing the bill to legalize gay marriages, although he anticipated the backlash that put Republicans in the legislative majority. But he might make some inroads among hunters with his opposition to gun control.

"He's got a complete leg up on what is going to be the number-one issue of 2004, which is health care," James Carville told The American Prospect. "If he could raise money, he'd be dangerous." Dean hopes to pull in $8 million to $10 million going into 2004's first three primaries in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, just a year and a half from now. He realizes that will still leave him "dead last in fundraising."

Based on the popularity of Josiah Bartlett, the fictional president from neighboring New Hampshire on The West Wing, maybe there is hope. At any rate, the candidacy of Howard Dean is a welcome addition to the presidential debate.

Turn to Clean Elections

Members of the Federal Election Commission have shown their allegiance to the politicians who appointed them as they set about to write regulations that would neuter even the modest curbs on influence peddling contained in the recently-passed campaign finance reform bill. It's time to try clean elections with publicly financed campaigns.

US Senator John McCain, R-Ariz., co-sponsor of the campaign finance reform bill which the FEC is trying to sabotage, announced his support for Arizona's Clean Elections law, one of the country's most comprehensive public financing systems, by taping television and radio public service announcements for broadcast in Arizona in June.

That same month the FEC opened up vast loopholes allowing the very fundraising barred by the statute to be redirected through state parties or other political action committees as long as Congress members don't directly solicit the donation.

Arizona is one of four pioneering states with Clean Elections, where candidates who agree to limit their fundraising can qualify for public financing of their campaigns. In 2000, 16 Arizonans were elected to office using Clean Elections funds. Participation in Clean Elections has since grown to more than 100 candidates this year, including more than 80% of candidates for statewide office and nearly 50% of legislative candidates.

In Maine, at least 210 legislative candidates, 55% of the total, are running under what the state calls the "clean money" option. That's up from 31% in 2000.

Public financing is also available in Vermont and Massachusetts, although the Massachusetts Legislature defied the will of the people as well as the state's highest court by refusing to appropriate the money for clean election candidates. The public passed the plan 2 to 1 in 1998 and the courts have threatened to order the sale of state property if the Legislature does not appropriate the funds. In a January Boston Globe/WBZ-TV poll, voters by 45 to 17 percent said the Clean Elections law ''should be funded and implemented because it was mandated by the voters.''

Opponents have turned to the courts to seek to have clean elections declared unconstitutional. An Arizona court recently struck down a surcharge on court fines as a source of election financing. That case is being appealed. Other states use a variety of funding sources or general appropriations. We would tax broadcast commercials to pay for public financing of state and federal campaigns. But clean elections are worth the cost to the public treasury so that candidates can run for office and debate public policy issues without having to worry about alienating capitol lobbyists and their corporate bosses. -- JMC

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