No Match

Howard Dean wants out of the campaign finance system.


Howard Dean may have hustled more money than any of his Democratic rivals, but he’s going to have to take his game to a whole new level if he goes up against Bush in ’04. So, after railing against insider-type politicians who skirt campaign finance laws, Dean has decided, subject to his supporters’ blessing, to skip them entirely. Whether that makes him a hypocrite, a realist, or a pioneer is open to speculation.

On Tuesday night Dean, the former governor of Vermont, sent a letter to his supporters seeking permission to forgo matching funds, which would limit him to a $45 million spending cap in the primary. Bush, a record-breaking money raiser, has already forgone matching funds and is expected to have somewhere in the region of $200 million by the general election. In his e-mail to 500,000 supporters, Dean argued that giving up the funds is the only way for his campaign to compete with Bush.

“Our campaign has not been just talk about future reform, it has been the action of real reform. Through hundreds of thousands of donations averaging $77, the impossible is happening — ordinary Americans are poised to overpower the largest mass of special interest money our nation has ever seen.

But soon our opportunity to compete dollar-for-dollar against George Bush’s army of special interests may be gone. If we accept federal matching funds, our spending will be capped at $45 million — and the greatest grassroots movement in the history of presidential politics will be stopped from raising money almost immediately and will reach the spending limit well before the end of the primaries. We will not have any funding until the Democratic convention at the end of July.”

The letter is pushing for Dean supporters to take the hint and let him turn down the funds, thus freeing him from campaign spending limits. Dean’s campaign manager, Joe Trippi, told the New York Times that if it were up to him he would opt out. (Although Trippi, just a few months ago, told the Washington Post that refusing the funds was just a “ remote possibility.”) But in his letter, Dean sticks to his grassroots message that has helped make him into a Democratic frontrunner.

“This decision is no longer mine to make. This is a campaign of the people, by the people and for the people. Your successful effort of raising a historic amount of money through small contributions has made this choice possible. This is why I am putting this decision in your hands”

Translation: If I get heat for this, I will blame you.

When Dean began his campaign, and before his successful fundraising efforts raked in $25 million, he pledged to accept the matching funds. “We’ve always been committed to this,” Dean said publicly. “Campaign-finance reform is just something I believe in.” Back in March, Dean warned fellow Democrats against abandoning the limits. “It will be a huge issue … because I think most Democrats believe in campaign finance reform.”

If Dean announces that his campaign is opting out, he will be the first Democrat to deny matching funds since the system was established, post-Watergate, in the 1970s.

The good news for Dean is that even advocates of campaign finance, for the most part, resist the urge to deride him as a flip-flopper. For example, Fred Wertheimer, the president of Democracy 21, part of a coalition of groups pressing for campaign fianance reform, saw Dean’s predicament.

“If a Democrat was simply abandoning the system in the abstract, that would be one thing. But the Democratic nominee here faces George Bush trying to drown them and the country with all the campaign money he’s raising.”

While Dean’s financial bind is understandable, Dean’s I’m-in-your-hands rhetoric comes off as false to Jason Zengerle of the New Republic, who writes that Dean needs to own up that skipping the funds is a strategic decision he needs to make, whether his people like it or not.

“Dean has good reason to opt out: there’s no point in standing on principle if it means sinking your campaign. But he should stand up and admit that the decision to opt out is his and his alone and is not necessarily the will of the people.”

But ABC’s the Note frames Dean’s decision more positively, arguing that he’s showing, as he did with his Internet campaign, that he can think innovatively and buck tradition:

“Dean’s decision (assuming his supporters support his move) is about Joe Trippi and Howard Dean once again putting their foot on the accelerator and thinking about the general election — while their opponents stop, think, look, consider, meet, call consultants, meet again, defer, delay, and dither.”

Case in point: John Kerry, the only other Dem candidate for whom forgoing matching funds would make any sense, is, as usual, waiting to see what Dean does, and has said that if Dean jumps, he will too.

Most likely Dean’s diehard fans will acquiesce, on the understanding that he’ll push for campaign finance reform if he makes it to the White House. If not, he’ll surely find it harder to beat Bush. Either way, this is another loss of innocence, however justifiable, for the Dean movement.