WASHINGTON -- Howard Dean is used to being an eccentric within his own party, so the fact that he's urging Democrats to address the impending sequester by doing basically the opposite of what the Obama administration, congressional leadership and every progressive-minded economist wants shouldn't come as a terrible shock.
"We should let it happen," Dean said of $1 trillion in domestic, defense and Medicare spending cuts set to be triggered on March 1. "I’m in favor of the sequester. It is tough on things that I care about a lot, but the fact of the matter is, you are not going to get another chance to cut the defense budget in the way that it needs to be cut."
"It’s an odd view from the left," he conceded.
It certainly is. Then again, Dean's views are often a bit idiosyncratic.
The former Vermont governor was warning against the perils of the Iraq War when it was still considered politically risky to do so. As chairman of the Democratic National Committee, he called for a 50 state strategy when few saw the utility in Democrats making a play for votes in states like Mississippi. When he ran for president in 2004, Dean had the innovative idea of pinning his hopes on grassroots momentum built on top of an online foundation. It was a digitally savvy, progressive template used by a senator named Barack Obama four years later.
But whereas Obama, as president, was forced to shed his renegade persona, Dean kept it going. As the president's health care law was getting watered down in Congress, Dean was one of the first to call for it to be scrapped. After the White House cut a deal this past January to end the Bush-era tax cuts for income above $400,000, he complained loudly that Democrats had gotten worked.
"The Republicans kicked their ass in that deal," he said. "Inside the Beltway people spun it in a different way. But, in effect, the Republicans won that battle."
Despite his reputation as a dogmatic liberal, Dean is something of a deficit hawk, which is why he's far more comfortable with sequestration than most Democrats. While most in the party warn that the cuts could result in hundreds of thousands of jobs lost, and while defense officials warn that it would hollow out the U.S. armed forces and endanger our capacity to conduct foreign affairs, Dean views it as an opportunity not to be missed. When, after all, will lawmakers get a chance to cut defense spending without having to do anything at all?
It's the long-run view of politics in a city that usually operates with a short-term mindset.
A transcript of his interview with The Huffington Post is below. It has been edited and condensed for clarity.
There are few people in the Democratic Party at this juncture who are publicly in favor of letting the sequestration happen.
We should let it happen.
Because I think that our Pentagon budget has been pretty bloated for 30 years. There have been almost no cuts in it at all. This is a rare chance to cut the Pentagon significantly enough so that it makes a difference. And if you don’t take it, we’re not going to get this chance again for another generation.
How do you respond to the people who are deeply worried that it will trigger a short-term recession at worst, economic stagnation at best?
I think it will. The CBO has said it will ... But we really don’t want to miss the opportunity here because the Republicans took three quarters of the revenues we needed to balance the budget off the table in the fiscal cliff deal. So this would be an opportunity to really cut spending.
But why cut spending now?
Because we have a chance now. We don’t have a chance later. These guys are incapable of getting anything done so they’ve put themselves in this box and I don’t think they’re going to cut spending later on. Most of the cuts they make are hocus-pocus.
I’m in favor of the sequester. It is tough on things that I care about a lot, but the fact of the matter is, you are not going to get another chance to cut the defense budget in the way that it needs to be cut. And if people are serious about cutting spending, that’s a place that nobody in Congress is going to look -- neither Democrats nor Republicans.
There’s a school of thought that says now is just not the right time to do any cuts of any variety. [Congressional Budget Office Director] Doug Elmendorf testified that if sequestration went through, you’d lose 750,000 jobs in the first year. So what about the argument that you should put off sequestration for a year and not have any cuts at all?
Well, the problem is that it’s never a good time to do cuts. When I look at these guys on Sunday talk shows, they’re all over the place. They all say we need cuts and when you try to pin them down, they don't have any. So either they can be serious about the deficit or not. They're not. And I think cutting the Pentagon is the good thing to do. I don’t think we’re going to get another chance. If you want to put this off for six months, yeah okay. But I don’t want to miss this chance. We already missed our chance before.
In the last year, what they did was they made permanent the Bush tax cuts under $400,000. The Republicans kicked their ass in that deal. And inside the Beltway people spun it in a different way. But, in effect, the Republicans won that battle. And now, I think we’ve got to make the cuts and if we don’t make the cuts, then the deficit will be dealt with in a worse balance later on.
You seem to put a lot of stock into the idea of having trigger events. The ending of the Bush tax cuts was a trigger event, the sequestration is a trigger event...
And they certainly weaseled their way out of the ending of the Bush tax cuts.
So let’s talk about that a little bit. You feel like it was clearly a lost opportunity.
Sure it was. Of course it was. I mean, the Bush tax cuts are now permanent for everyone who makes less than $400,000 a year. That’s crazy. Every dime that they gave to people who made $400,000 a year is a dime that has to be taken away from somebody who makes $40,000 a year. If you’re serious about the budget, which I don’t think either party is, I might add.
Again, we can go back to the argument that the best way to grow out of this deficit is not by cutting, but by passing some sort of stimulus measure, getting the economy going again so that you have more people making money and paying taxes.
If you want to do that, be my guest. But I don’t think anybody’s going to argue except the right wing that the Pentagon needs more spending. This is a chance to cut Pentagon spending. We haven’t done it for 30 years. It is one of the most bloated agencies in the country. This is a chance to cut it. You know very well that the Democrats and the Republicans, none of them have the guts to cut Pentagon spending like this.
So if they pass something else that doesn’t cut Pentagon spending than they’re going to lose another opportunity. They’ve already lost one.
And I would agree. This would not be my favorite timing. I don’t think this is a great solution. I just think it’s the better of any of the ones that are on the table. You know, I wish we did have different timing. There are going to be some jobs lost. The fact of the matter is that we will not get this chance again.
The sequester is broad. It doesn't discriminate between good or bad programs. Aren't you worried about what effect hundreds of billions in Medicare provider cuts will have?
No. I’m not in the least worried about Medicare provider cuts. The president essentially proposed them in the State of the Union. Whether this comes from drug companies or provider cuts, we’re going to do those anyway as soon as they get around to doing what really has to be done, which is paying by the patient, not by the procedure.
It’s an odd view from the left. But there are actually some people who think I’m right.
You’re comfortable risking a short-term recession to take advantage of this opportunity.
I think you’ve got to. It will be a short term, light, small recession. Look, we’re in deep trouble financially in this country. And, you know, there’s going to be a tremendous amount of pain. You can pay me later or you can pay me now, but paying later is going to be much worse and it’s going to hit much more vulnerable people than this does.