Dean's money gambit

November 07, 2003|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean's ploy of asking his supporters whether he should forgo federal funds for his presidential primary campaign, and thus make the sky the limit for their contributions, has about as much credibility as Ross Perot in 1992 asking "the people" whether he should run.

It's also like Gov. Bill Clinton, after having pledged to Arkansas voters that he would complete his full term, "asking" them in late 1991 whether it would be OK if he violated the promise and ran for president the next year.

Mr. Perot and Mr. Clinton never would have put the question to their supporters had they not been fully confident that the answer would be "yes." So it seems certain as well that when the ballots are in and counted tomorrow, Mr. Dean will be able to say the voice of the people has been heard, and it will be all fund-raising systems go.

The vote via the Internet is a most artful if transparent way to get around his earlier commitment to support the federal campaign finance system, which calls on candidates to limit their primary spending in return for a federal subsidy - nearly $19 million for 2004. The vote not only seeks public sanction for Mr. Dean's flip-flop, but also becomes a rallying point for an intensification of his Internet-driven solicitations that have startled American politics and left his rivals in the dust.

Beyond that, Mr. Dean can blame his switch - with considerable justification - on President Bush, who is expected to opt out of the federal subsidy system and go after as much as $200 million for a presidential primary period in which he has no Republican opposition.

Indeed, blaming Mr. Bush has been at the heart of the Dean campaign - for starting a pre-emptive war, for high unemployment, for tearing down civil liberties, you name it. With hostility toward the president white-hot among Democratic activists old and new, Mr. Dean is counting on his supporters to put their money where their mouths are in a bigger way than ever.

He points out correctly that under the federal spending limit of $45 million, he probably will have exhausted most of his campaign funds battling for the Democratic nomination from January to March, when the outcome is expected to be decided. That will leave him (or any other Democratic candidate accepting the federal subsidy) financially naked until the summer conventions, when a second phase of federal money (as of now to be accepted by Mr. Bush) kicks in.

In his appeal to his supporters, Mr. Dean says that if he accepts the federal cap on spending for the primaries, "our opportunity to compete dollar-for-dollar against George Bush's army of special interests may be gone ... and the greatest grass-roots movement in the history of presidential politics will be stopped from raising money almost immediately."

But if he opts out and sacrifices the nearly $19 million in federal money, Mr. Dean says, his small-contributor base of 200,000 givers, who have shelled out an average of $77, can be swelled to 2 million Americans giving $100 each. That would match Mr. Bush's ability to raise the same amount in $2,000 chunks from wealthy supporters.

The other Democrats running obviously feel that Mr. Dean will be doing to them what Mr. Bush is trying to do to him. Also, the whole public financing system, already undermined by Mr. Bush in 2000, as it was earlier by Mr. Perot and then megabucks publisher Steve Forbes, will be left in tatters. Its inadequacy, however, has long cried out for reform.

Of the other Democratic candidates, only Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts - his wife Teresa's late husband was heir to the Heinz food fortune - likely could also opt out. He said earlier he wasn't going to touch her money for his campaign.

For good-government liberals ("goo-goos," in the parlance of campaign trail), it's a Catch-22 - do they love campaign finance reform more than they hate George W. Bush? Mr. Dean says he will work to reform the system if he is elected, which sure sounds like making a deal with the devil now.

But in the immortal words of Finley Peter Dunne's Mr. Dooley, "Politics ain't beanbag."

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau and appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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