William Saletan and Ben Jacobs are now in the process of debunking “the bravest thing he ever did” stories on all the Democratic contenders. For Howard Dean, the myth is that he bravely fought for civil unions for homosexuals when in reality:

Dean had no choice but to accept such a bill. In December 1999, the Vermont Supreme Court ruled that Vermont was “constitutionally required to extend to same-sex couples the common benefits and protections that flow from marriage under Vermont law.” The court instructed the legislature to grant gays “inclusion within the marriage laws themselves or a parallel ‘domestic partnership’ or some equivalent statutory alternative.”

Given that choice, Dean took the more conservative option. According to the Associated Press, Vermont’s lieutenant governor and House speaker supported gay marriage, but Dean didn’t. Gay marriage “makes me uncomfortable, the same as anybody else,” Dean said at the time. He did encourage the legislature to pass a civil unions bill. But the alternative he averted was legalizing gay marriage, not preventing gay domestic partnerships.

Many supporters of the bill criticized Dean for signing it “in the closet,” in private and without a ceremony.

The reason Dean looks bold on this issue is that conservatives attacked him for supporting and signing the bill. In 2000, his Republican opponent accused him of threatening and bribing lawmakers to vote for the bill. Dean got so many threats that he had to wear a bulletproof vest. And the issue did sharply reduce his margin of victory.

While I’m not sure how this plays in Vermont or even with the Democratic nominating electorate (hint: there are primaries after New Hampshire), I find it ironic that he’s puffing up a story that would be harmful to him in a general election contest. His much more mainstream actual conduct would be much easier to sell in November 2004.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2004, , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. lefty skeptic says:

    Where did you get the idea that Dean himself is “puffing up the story”? It’s lightweight media pundits (the usual suspects) that are doing the puffing. Dean is (wisely, I think) not saying a whole lot about it.

  2. James Joyner says:


    From the Slate story itself:

    The story: “Six months before my last re-election [in 2000] I signed a bill into law that made Vermont the first state in American to guarantee equal rights to every person under the law. … That bill was called the civil unions bill. And it said that marriage is between a man and a woman, but same-sex couples are entitled to the exact same legal rights as I have—hospital visitation, insurance, and inheritance rights. … This bill was at about 40 percent in the polls when I signed it. Sixty percent were against it, six months before the election. I never got a chance to ask myself whether signing it was a good idea or not because I knew that if I were willing to sell out the rights of a whole group of human beings because it might be politically inconvenient for a future office I might run for, then I had wasted my time in public service. I looked in the mirror, and I knew that if my political career were about myself, then I would not have signed that bill. But my political career has never been about getting elected. … My political career is about change.” (Dean speech, Feb. 21, 2003)

  3. lefty skeptic says:

    Hmmm … one quote from a February speech. If he were “puffing it up”, I’d expect to see it on his Web site, at least. Or in multiple speeches.

    Nice technique by the authors. They pick apart the “story that shows the candidate at his best”. But they get to pick that story, so naturally they’re going to pick one that they can best attack. It’s a subtle way to do a hatchet job.

    How about if they asked the candidate himself for the story he considered his best, and then attempted to debunk it?

  4. James Joyner says:

    Heh–that’s not what journalists do though.

    My point is backhandedly pro-Dean. This makes him seem less of a fringe candidate, honestly. Civil unions are not ready for prime time as a presidential campaign platform. They may be in 2008 or 2012, but not 2004.

  5. joy says:

    The major reason why Dean was re-elected was because the Vermont Republicans nominated a unelectable candidate in 2000. Dean was the better choice in that pair up. That election was vicious to say the least.

    Do a search for the term “take back Vermont” if you don’t believe me.

  6. lefty skeptic says:

    I guess I’m in agreement with you then, Mr. Joyner. (Except maybe for the authors of that article qualifying as journalists. I guess it’s possible that their editor foisted the “best ever” gimmick on them. It’s a crock.) I think the whole episode reads as a smart politician handling what is potentially a wedge issue. I’m guessing that February speech wasn’t made to Bob Jones University, either, if you get my drift.

    Joy – he was elected previously. What did he do during his term before the 2000 election that was so horrible that the “only reason he was elected” (again – my point) “was because the Vermont Republicans nominated a unelectable candidate in 2000”, vicious campaign or not?

  7. lefty skeptic says:

    Oops, sorry I misquoted you there, Joy. You did say “major reason”, not “only reason”. My bad. The question still stands.