Howard Dean: I Am Not a Shill

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NEW YORK, NY - FEBRUARY 11:  Howard Dean attends the Symposium to mark the 33rd Anniversary of the Iranian Revolution at The Waldorf=Astoria on February 11, 2012 in New York City.  (Photo by Dave Kotinsky/Getty Images)
Photo: Dave Kotinsky/Getty Images

Howard Dean is miffed that his Wall Street Journal op-ed calling for the repeal of the Independent Payment Advisory Board, part of Obamacare, has made him the subject of scorn from people like me. Dean is a lobbyist — sorry, a “lawyer” — for McKenna Long & Aldridge, a K Street lobbying firm that represents numerous health-care interests. The former populist tells Kate Pickert that it’s unfair that critics would assume he’s taking this position because his clients are paying him to, merely because he happens to have a job that consists of taking positions his clients want him to take in return for money.

Pickert asks Dean if his clients — whom Dean won’t disclose — oppose IPAB. He replies:

“I’m sure we do,” says Dean. “What annoys me is that everything you say comes down to who’s paying you to say it. You can talk like that if you want to but I don’t think it helps the general discussion. We ought to argue on the merits.”

Right, maybe we should go back and review what a lobbyist does. You’re supposed to argue on behalf of your clients. So, if you’re a lawyer defending somebody accused of a crime, you can publicly defend your client, and any media outlets conveying your arguments will note that this is your job. A “Washington lawyer” like Dean gets to enjoy a more convenient arrangement, where he can take money from clients, not disclose who the clients are, and publicly defend their interests. An organ like the Journal op-ed page might be happy to let Dean avoid disclosing any commercial interests so its op-ed can be circulated among conservatives who triumphantly declare that Even Howard Dean Admits that Obamacare is terribly flawed.

Now, the merits of the issue are pretty important. But writers like Jonathan Cohn and former Obama adviser Peter Orszag make the case that Dean wildly misstates the relevant facts and also takes a position impossible to reconcile with things he previously advocated.

On the other hand, the people who pay Dean think the op-ed is really smart. “I dare say some of the clients think [the op-ed] is great, but I don’t write stuff because the clients like it,” he tells Pickert. It’s just one of those fortunate, lucrative coincidences of belief.