Al Gore set the media abuzz last Tuesday with his unexpected endorsement of former Vermont Governor Howard Dean, the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination for president. The journalistic consensus seems to be that the former vice president is a centrist insider whose support significantly improves Dean’s standing among establishment Democrats.
“An Insider Boost for An Outsider Candidacy,” said the Washington Post . “Mr. Gore’s decision,” the New York Times  reported, “put him in the odd position of supporting an insurgent candidate who has built his campaign attacking the centrist Democratic positions that the former Vice President has espoused for two decades.” CBS Evening News called Gore a “centrist Southerner,” while NBC’s Katie Couric referred to him as a “hardcore centrist.”
Although the moderate-insider-endorses-maverick storyline makes for good political drama, the ideological disparity between Dean and Gore has been greatly exaggerated. The main difference between the two men is one of image, not philosophy. One is a two-term former vice president from the South with a reputation for stiffness and wonkishness, while the other is a blunt New Englander whose campaign has been fueled in large part by anger towards President Bush.
Ideologically, however, there is scant difference between the “centrist” Gore and the “insurgent” Dean. On a broad range of important issues – abortion, homosexuality, immigration, school vouchers, health care, Iraq, racial preferences, taxes – the two men have staked out very similar positions on the left side of the political spectrum. And on perhaps the most prominent issue on which they part ways – guns – it is Dean who is to the right of Gore (although the Vermonter has moved left since his days as governor and now endorses the Brady Bill and the Assault Weapons Ban).
Twenty years ago, calling Al Gore a moderate would have made sense. But Gore has become much more liberal since his days as a congressman from Tennessee, having done an about-face on guns and abortion, for instance. And whereas in 1991 Gore was one of only ten Democratic senators to support the Gulf War resolution, this year he has been one of the nation’s most outspoken critics of the war in Iraq. Thus, Gore’s support for Dean, another liberal antiwar leader, is not as unusual as most reporters have portrayed it.
USA Today  pointed out some of the similarities between the two men, albeit in its typically slanted fashion: “Gore and Dean hold similar, critical views of the war in Iraq. Gore and his wife, Tipper, have also championed gay rights and services for the mentally ill. Dean has a strong record in both areas.” Apparently a “strong” record is a liberal one. (The article goes on to mention Dean’s work on “children’s issues” – an odd statement in light of his strident support of abortion.)
Calling Dean an “outsider” or “insurgent” is no more accurate than labeling Gore a “moderate.” The Democratic frontrunner is no political neophyte – a Yale graduate from a wealthy family, Dean has spent more than twenty years in politics, including almost twelve as governor of Vermont.
Dean has won endorsements from many influential politicians (including more than twenty congressmen), and most Democratic activists and primary voters share his leftist views. What concerns many pragmatic Democrats is not Dean’s ideology per se, but whether the short-tempered Vermonter can successfully pass himself off as a moderate in the general election (? la Bill Clinton).
Many in the media are willing to help him in this regard. As Dean’s nomination has grown more likely, reporters have increasingly played up his “centrist” side: CBS News, for instance, recently claimed that Dean had a “moderate record” as governor, calling him “frugal” and “a fiscal conservative.”
Although the latter term has been applied to Dean in countless articles, it is little more than a talking point, according to Americans for Tax Reform : “Overall, Vermont state spending grew 83% under Dean from 1992 through 2001, 58% faster than the state’s economy.”
The Cato Institute, moreover, gave him a “D” in fiscal policy last year, saying, “After 12 years of Dean’s so-called ‘fiscal conservatism,’ Vermont remains one of the highest taxing and spending states.” Add his calls for universal, government-run health care and a large increase in federal taxes, and it becomes obvious that Howard Dean is no conservative, fiscal or otherwise.
As a footnote, it is worth mentioning that many reporters used the Gore endorsement as an opportunity to hint that George Bush really should not be in the White House. “Gore’s seal of approval, remember, comes from the man who won the popular vote for President in the 2000 election,” said Wyatt Andrews of CBS Evening News. ABC, NBC, CNN, and CNBC likewise reminded viewers  that Gore won a plurality of the popular vote.
Naturally, the networks did not include any mention of the numerous cases of vote fraud  in the 2000 election; taking these into account, Bush may very well have won more votes than Gore. (Of course, what really matters is that Bush won the electoral college, which the Constitution establishes as the method for choosing the president.)