HOWARD DEAN'S major asset as a candidate -- his trenchant criticism of President Bush -- is undercut by his continued foot-dragging on the 145 boxes of gubernatorial documents he has had sealed for 10 years in Vermont.
While all of the Democratic presidential candidates criticize Bush -- John Kerry, Richard Gephardt, and Dennis Kucinich with notable vehemence -- none has equaled Dean's ability to score points with Democratic voters by attacking Bush on the war in Iraq, tax cuts for the rich, and a range of other issues.
But one of Bush's glaring vulnerabilities is the excessive secrecy in his administration, and Dean will lose traction on the issue if he allows the impression to take hold that he, like Bush, believes that a great deal of information should be available to the governors but not the governed.
This is a fundamental matter, going to the question of whether Dean sees the nation as having a government of and by the people or only, at best, for the people.
How can Dean challenge Bush on the secret planning of energy policy, the secret intelligence on Iraq, or the charges supposedly being planned secretly against "enemy combatants" if he is himself guilty of wanting to control the flow of information by sealing information that should be public?
When this issue is resolved, it may well turn out that there is nothing in the papers embarrassing to the former governor and that some of the boxed material contains personal information about other people that should indeed remain private. In fact, most of Dean's papers -- 190 boxes' worth -- were made public when he left office in January.
But it is still troublesome that Dean chose to seal so many papers, that he did so for 10 years when predecessors adopted a six-year period, and that he has stubbornly resisted making a satisfactory explanation or moving on the issue for several months. The result is that the conservative group Judicial Watch has filed suit to open the papers, the Republican national chairman has gone to Vermont wagging his finger, and some of the other candidates are beginning to raise questions. It's enough to make one wonder if there indeed is something in the papers Dean would rather not have disclosed.
If not it should be easy for Dean to ask that the nonsensitive papers be processed and made public in an orderly fashion. Changing one's policy in response to legitimate criticism should not be a political liability. Irrational stubbornness usually is.