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Lie of the Year: Interview with Howard Dean

Angie Drobnic Holan
By Angie Drobnic Holan December 17, 2010

PolitiFact interviewed Howard Dean, former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, for our story on the Lie of the Year. We included some of his comments in our story; here are additional excerpts.

On PolitiFact's choice of "Lie of the Year," that the health care law is a "government takeover" of the health care system:

"That's a great one because it's a big one. It's not just a small one, some jackass politician saying something. It permeated the debate. ... There was a lot of what I would call willful ignorance on the part of the (Republicans), to put it charitably -- otherwise it was outright propaganda. 'Keep the government's hands off my Medicare,' tipped it off as to how the debate was going to go.

"Of course this isn't a government takeover. It's what (former Massachusetts Gov.) Mitt Romney signed (in 2006). It's entirely a private sector bill. The only thing that was a government improvement, and it wasn't a takeover, is the expansion of existing programs such as Medicaid. Which is actually how we did universal health care for kids in Vermont, is expansion of Medicaid, and believe me, no middle-class person in Vermont resents the idea that we expanded Medicaid."

On whether the attack was effective:

"Yes and no, yes and no. It was a base builder. The people that believed it was a government takeover of health care were never going to vote for the Democrats in the first place. But it probably did hurt (Democrats in the 2010 elections) like Chet Edwards. (Editor's note: Edwards, a House member from Texas, was first elected in 1990 and lost this year.) I'm going to make a guess here, maybe of the 60 seats (Republicans) picked up, I'm going to guess at least 25 and maybe 40 were Republican-leaning districts that Democrats like Chet Edwards had held for many, many years. Since many of his constituents were conservatives and even Republicans, it's possible that some of them who resented Obama voted against Chet because they might've believed it was a government takeover."

On the Democratic response to the attack:

"The Democrats are atrocious at messaging. They've gotten worse since I left, not better. It's just appalling. First of all, you don't play defense when you're doing messaging, you play offense. The Republicans have learned this well. We did a lot of great things when I was at the (Democratic National Committee) in terms of infrastructure but we never could get people to actually message better. You always play offense when you're messaging, and the Republicans do it and we don't. You don't defend (against a charge that it's) a government takeover, you just say, 'Well, that's ridiculous.'

"The way I would respond is this, I'd say, we have a socialized system of medicine in this country, 25 million people are in it, and it's the highest rated system by its patients. It's called the Veterans Administration. Then, we already have a single payer in this country, with roughly twice as many people as are on the single payer in Canada. It's called Medicare. So all we think is that it's reasonable to give people a choice. This bill is even more conservative than that: All they do is expand what you already have."

On the bill that passed not having a public option, which Dean supported:

"It was not reform. The reason I eventually supported it is that I looked at what was going on in Massachusetts, and I think that will ultimately lead to reform. But the people who will reform it will be the medical industry and the private sector, because the costs are going to force reform. In Massachusetts, they're talking about real reforms now. But there's no serious reform in the (federal) health care bill. Now I'm not saying the health care bill isn't worth anything -- they're going to cover 30 million people who had no coverage. The biggest thing that Romney and Obama recognized when they did these bills is that until you get everyone in the system, you can't change the system. It's like squeezing a balloon, you're always going to have place where the water is going to pop out. To include everybody in the system -- they both chose to do that.

"This is the Republican solution, that's the irony of all this. Poor old Romney is getting hammered by his own people in the Republican primary for doing it. It's a Republican solution. It's a private enterprise solution. So the idea of saying it's a government takeover is just a plain lie. ... The Republicans are now pushing themselves further to the right, but they're going to keep marching in that direction until the electorate finally says no."

On whether Democrats as a group are capable of advocating a unified message the way Republicans do:

"It's just appalling. It was uncoordinated. Everyone had their own idea. They need some coaching on messaging. It's not like there are no good people on the Democratic side who'll do it, it's that they just don't listen. ... First of all, you don't play defense. Second of all you don't explain every detail in the bill. Frank Luntz has it right, he just works for the wrong side. You give very simple catch-phrases that encapsulate the philosophy of the bill. They were able to spin their message out, most of which is a lie. It's not a government takeover, there were no death panels. But these are effective things.

"We get beat every time on this stuff, and I can't figure it out, what the hell is wrong with the DNA of the Democratic Party that we can't be much tougher. It was incredibly frustrating getting beat on messaging, especially because they were wrong."

On whether health care is too complicated for voters to understand:

"The details of almost everything that goes on are too complicated, that's why we have a representative government. They're not going to understand the details of health care anymore than a brain surgeon is going to understand how to fix his car. What we all do is very complicated. When we go to the auto mechanic, we're going to have a certain amount of trust in the auto mechanic, because we're certainly not going to learn how to do it ourselves. If you think of it that way, it's not that politicians are any smarter than anybody else, it's just that they spend a lot of time in committee learning the details, which is a good thing, that's what they're supposed to learn. Financial reform is just as complicated. The key on these things is to message it in a few short ways. This tax debate we're having right now is driving me nuts. It's very simple: Do you cut people on unemployment and then give tax breaks to people who make $1 million a year? I think the vast majority of the American people think no, you don't do that. Why aren't we talking about that? Why isn't that the message? So it's very frustrating. We got our butts beat on lousy messaging."

On the future of the health law:

"A lot of the bill, frankly, depends on the implementation and what happens over the next couple of years. In our favor is that I frankly think (Health and Human Services Sec. Kathleen) Sebelius is terrific. She is exactly the right person to do the implementation, and she's in the right agency and she has the experience. She knows the insurance industry cold because she's a former insurance commissioner. She was a governor, so she gets administration. And, she's pretty good at messaging, although the messaging has to come from the White House, because when you're the party in power, the president is completely in charge. So that's in our favor.

"The other thing that is in our favor is we can see in the future because of Massachusetts, they're four years ahead of us. They really are now having some serious discussions about how to bring costs under control, which there was very little serious discussion of in either the Massachusetts bill or the federal bill. So I think there's hope. This could lead to real reform. It's just going to take some time and it's going to be a lot more painful than it needs to be."

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Phone interview with Howard Dean, Dec. 10, 2010

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Lie of the Year: Interview with Howard Dean