Canadians are pretty smug about how much more progressive we are than Americans — often, Canadians define themselves by that difference from the Yankees: universal healthcare, gay rights, women’s rights, multiculturalism and pacifism.

Asked to picture an American, we often have to stop ourselves from conjuring a gun-toting, Bible-thumping redneck waving nuclear missiles in the name of the 10 Commandments, lower taxes and robber-baron capitalism.

Enter the inspiring presidential campaign of Howard Dean, former governor of Vermont. Dean and his impressive campaign shattered our image of the typical American by rousing a largely silent but obviously substantial set of American citizens whose values more closely mirror our own than their president’s; a group we only theoretically understood existed.

A year ago, virtually no one outside Vermont knew who Dean was, and those who did placed his shot at becoming a serious presidential candidate in the same range as that of any randomly selected prize heifer — his politics were too decisively left to merit serious consideration.

But Dean joined the marathon of the Democratic primaries anyway and, rallying a vast army of Deaniacs through canny use of the internet, he managed to raise nearly $50 million for his campaign (much of it in donations of $25 and $30) and became, for quite a while, a favourite for the Democratic nomination. By mid-December, an ABC/ Washington Post poll of registered Democrats showed him with more than three times the popularity of any of the other candidates.

Analysts will be debating for years just how and why Dean’s early lead imploded en route to his withdrawl from the race Feb. 18. How influential was the guttural scream that made Dean seem as though he was advertising a monster-truck rally? Were his supporters at home blogging on his behalf instead of visiting the polls? Or were the early talking heads right, was Dean just too straightforwardly progressive to be electable in the US of A?

Whatever the reason for his collapse, Dean initially became the front-runner and presumed Democratic candidate while stridently refusing to reduce his message to the weak, inoffensive pablum that is the standard fare of mainstream political rhetoric.

Before jokes about weapons of mass deception became popular (and well before the war started), Dean was calling US activities in Iraq unjust, a position he didn’t back away from even after Saddam Hussein was captured.

And he was strident in defence of the civil-union law he signed as governor, saying “I [signed] it not because I knew a lot about the gay community, it was because I believed every single American deserves equal rights under the law.” He didn’t buy the position that gay marriage is a matter of states’ rights, as does still-contending candidate John Edwards. Dean proposed to deliver equal rights for queers across the nation: “I will work to expand equal rights to same-sex couples and ban workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation, strengthen federal protections against anti-gay violence, give federal employees the right to name same-sex partners as beneficiaries … and end the military’s ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy.”

He was equally plainspoken in defence of abortion rights. “I will unflinchingly defend a woman’s right to choose against those who would take away this right,” he said. “As president, I will veto any bill that chills the practice of medicine, endangers the lives of women or interferes with reproductive choice.”

Perhaps the only thing more surprising than an American politician publicly defending abortion and gay rights would be one talking about raising taxes to pay for universal healthcare. Yet there was Dean, saying he would “repeal the Bush tax cuts, and use those funds to pay for universal healthcare, homeland security and investments in job creation that benefit all Americans.”

Watching, we were struck by how positively Canadian his ideas seemed. And then we realized that outside of Jack Layton (who has yet to even come near the polling numbers Dean achieved at his peak), no one in recent Canadian politics has been brave enough to talk this way. And we further realized that there is an opening on the federal political scene — the newly re-conglomerated Conservative Party of Canada is floundering through an uninspiring leadership contest.

Is it too late to arrange a quickie citizenship application for Dean, so that he might lead the new party and bring his bold Vermont ideology to Canada?

We can hear the sputtered objections from our right that Dean is not conservative. But consider that as a governor, Dean was famously a fiscal hawk, restricting spending and balancing the budget. And consider what Dean said when asked how he planned to win: “George W. Bush is a borrow-and-spend liberal, and I tell people that I’m going to beat George W. Bush by running to his right.”

Dean for Canada? Bloggers, start your engines.

Originally published as an unsigned editorial in Eye Weekly on February 26, 2004.

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