WASHINGTON — Howard Dean furrowed eyebrows last week when he decided to forego public financing of his campaign, thus eliminating the $45 million cap that taking those federal funds would require. Dean, swimming in a vast ocean of unexpected Internet contributions, is opting out of the system, simply put, because it makes sense for him to do so. John Kerry will follow suit, and if any of the other candidates could raise that kind of money they’d opt out as well.
Dean’s opponents quickly labeled the decision “hypocritical.” Dean prefers to dress it up as “a new Declaration of Independence.” The Dean press release announcing his flip-flop is ridiculously titled, “The Tea is in the Harbor.”
It might have gone down a bit smoother if Dean hadn’t vowed back in March to stick with the public financing system come hell or high water. Worse, he made a big show of warning then-frontrunners Kerry and John Edwards that if they opted out of the system it would be “a huge issue. I think most Democrats believe in campaign finance reform.”
Dean’s enthusiasm has turned to skepticism in a hurry. How does a self-proclaimed “straight talker” turn a blatant waffle into a principled stand? He couldn’t, really. But Dean also couldn’t afford to lose his shine as the underdog that those bad Washington establishment types keep smacking with a rolled up wad of “special interest” money either. So he tried to pre-emptively reframe the debate, holding a referendum on his popular website. Now he can blame his broken promise à la Ross Perot, on the volunteers.
One hundred million dollars (or more) is quite a lot to risk on one online vote, so of course Dean never left the outcome in much doubt. Using the same simpleton siren calls that have made his campaign catch fire with the coffee crowd nationwide, he blamed President Bush for forcing this decision upon him. “We support public financing,” he wrote to supporters, “but the unabashed actions of this president to thwart our democratic processes with a flood of special interests money have us forced to abandon a broken system.”
So: After puffing supporters up by confiding that he was putting, “the most important decision of the campaign” in their hands, Dean essentially told them that a vote to force him to keep his promise was tantamount to a vote for George W. Bush.
“For the Republican primary election, even though he has no opponent, George Bush is raising $200 million from large corporate interests. The Bush campaign is selling our democracy so they can crush their Democratic opponent. We are building the only campaign that can stop this outrage,” Dean explained.
After more self-congratulatory language about taking it to the Man, Dean dropped this nugget on supporters: “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.” The federal matching funds law that Dean strongly supported less than a year ago is now a monkey wrench in the revolution of the proletariat. And, no pressure, or anything, but “the fate of this campaign rests in your hands, and I believe the future of our American democracy rests on your decision.”
Now, I ask you, who would vote to refuse federal funds after that sales pitch? He might as well have asked, “Do you want to hand the country over to the racists and fascists?”
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