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Gephardt Ad Quotes Dean Out of Context

Tough attack twists Dean's words about Medicare.


Gephardt released possibly the toughest ad by any candidate so far. The 30-second spot called “Know” highlight’s Dean’s past criticism of the Medicare program, and Dean’s stated willingness to consider changes in Social Security to balance the federal budget.

But by quoting Dean as saying Medicare is “one of the worst federal programs ever,” the Gephardt ad fails to tell the full story. Dean was criticizing Medicare’s administration, not the benefits it provides.



“How much do you really know about Howard Dean?” Gephardt’s latest ad asks. “Did you know Howard Dean called Medicare ‘one of the worst federal programs ever?'” The ad goes on to portray Dean as a man who would cut Medicare and Social Security to trim the budget, while Gephardt promises to “protect” both programs.

Gephardt Ad: “Know”

Announcer: How much do you really know about Howard Dean? Did you know Howard Dean called Medicare ‘one of the worst federal programs ever?’ Did you know he supported the Republican plan to cut Medicare by $270 billion? And did you know Howard Dean supported cutting Social Security retirement benefits to balance the budget?

Gephardt: I will be a president who will fight to protect Medicare and Social Security. I’m Dick Gephardt. That’s why I approved this message.

Here’s the problem: the ad doesn’t give the full Dean quote. What Dean really said makes clear he was attacking the Medicare bureaucracy and red tape, not the benefits paid to seniors.

The full quote from a 1993 San Francisco Chronicle story:

I think it’s one of the worst federal programs ever and is a living advertisement for why the federal government should never administer a national health care program.

Dean also was quoted as saying almost the same thing in an Associated Press story from around the same time:

Dean: I think the Medicare system is one of the worst things that ever happened . . . . It demonstrates the notion that the federal government ought not to be allowed to run a national health care system. It’s a bureaucratic disaster.

To be sure, Dean could have avoided the problem had he been more careful in his phrasing. For example, had he said “the administration of Medicare makes it the worst,” then Gephardt could not so easily attack. But a full reading of Dean’s comments makes his meaning clear.

Dean hasn’t backed off that criticism of Medicare’s rules and regulations – but he also praises what it does for seniors. Here’s what he said in October last year on the NBC Today Show:

Dean: It is a bureaucratic disaster, and I don’t make any apologies for that. I–when my father passed away two years ago, I couldn’t figure out what was in his–in his bill. And many other Americans face the same problem. Small town doctors, which I was before I got into politics, are harassed by the folks who run Medicare and Medicaid. That doesn’t mean it’s–the program is a bad program. It’s a terrific program for seniors . . . . It’s not very well run. And one of the things I promise is that somebody who’s actually taking care of patients is going to run Medicare and Medicaid should I become president of the United States.

Dean, of course, is a physician.

Gephardt’s ad also asks: “Did you know he (Dean) supported the Republican plan to cut Medicare by $270 billion?” That refers to a budget fight way back in 1995, when Dean spoke favorably of a plan being proposed by Republican senators to slow the growth of spending in Medicare by $270 billion over seven years. And as we’ve said before, if that’s a “cut” then Gephardt and President Clinton were proposing a cut, too: a measure to slow Medicare spending by $124 billion.

Here’s more of what Dean said about that in the Today Show interview:

Dean: No, I did not support cutting Medicare . . . What I did support is cutting the growth rate in Medicare, which Bill Clinton ev–eventually signed in 1997. That did have some Democratic support, people like Senator Bob Kerry at the time. And in fact, what we did saved Medicare.

Finally, the Gephardt ad paints Dean as a threat to Social Security benefits: “And did you know Howard Dean supported cutting Social Security retirement benefits to balance the budget?”

Back in 1995, Dean did suggest increasing the Social Security retirement age to 70, and also that the program itself shouldn’t be exempt from the effort to trim the federal deficit. For example, he said in an ABC News interview:

Dean: I also think that we ought to put Social Security back on the table and defense. If you take defense and Social Security off the table, what you’ve essentially said, “We’re not going to cut any of the controversial things at the federal level, despite our rhetoric about being courageous in a new day in the American Congress, we’re just going to let the governors do all the cutting.” We’ll do the cutting, but they got to do some cutting here, too.

As a governor, Dean said back then he was concerned that federal lawmakers were taking the easy route of passing costs to the states and forcing them to raise taxes or cut benefits. He said on CNN:

Dean: My problem is this. There have been a lot of statements up on Capitol Hill that say “We’re not going to touch Social Security.” “We’re going not to touch Medicare,” one statement was. “We’re not going to touch veterans’ benefits.” “We’re not going to touch defense. We may add to defense.” Well, then you’re going to stick all the cuts on the programs, as you well know, that go to the states. States cannot afford to do that without raising taxes.

Whatever Dean supported in 1995, he says now that he would not cut either Medicare or Social Security benefits and that he’s rejected the idea of an increase in the retirement age – though he also says he might move to hold down the rate of growth in spending. For example, he said in an ABC News interview in September last year:

Dean: Yes, we do. But now, I know how that can be fixed. That is, you get rid of the president’s tax cut. The next president of the United States is going to have to confront exactly this — do we cut veterans’ benefits? Do we cut Social Security benefits? Do we cut Medicare benefits?
Q: And what’s your answer now?
Dean: We do not. We don’t need to do that. But, I have not said that I won’t look at the rate of growth of any of these things because we’re in back trouble. Of course we will.



Watch Gephardt Ad: “Know”


Sabin Russell, “Vermont Prescription for Health Care,” The San Francisco Chronicle 17 Aug. 1993: A3.

Christopher Connell “Patients May Be Folded into New Health System,” The Associated Press 2 Aug. 1993.

Howard Dean This Week with David Brinkley, ABC News, Washington, DC, 29 Jan. 1995.

Howard Dean Crossfire, CNN, Washington , DC , 28 Feb. 1995.

Howard Dean This Week with George Stephanopoulos, ABC News, 14 Sept. 2003.

Brooks Jackson, “Truth Was an Occasional Casualty In Sunday’s Debate” CNN 7 Oct. 1996.