On The Threshold

Down but not out, ex-Dean campaign manager Joe Trippi builds on ideas for a new America with a sturdy populist foundation.

March 10, 2004|By Tom Dunkel | Tom Dunkel,SUN STAFF

WITTMAN - Apparently you can teach an old political dog new tricks.

"Kasey," Joe Trippi barks at his pint-size white terrier, "would you rather be dead ... or work for George Bush?"

Kasey rolls over on the floor and does his best imitation of roadkill.

Only two months ago, Kasey was going belly up at the mention of John Kerry's name. But that was back when the Democratic presidential nomination was still being hotly contested, back when Howard Dean was the frontrunner and hadn't yet cut loose with his post-Iowa-caucus concession screech.

That also was back before Joe Trippi - who was Dean's magic-touch campaign manager for a year until he was made to walk the plank following a second, unexpected primary thumping in New Hampshire - came home to his Eastern Shore farm and started sifting through the wreckage of a dream that died at warp speed.

No more media-darling bandwagon. No more of those standing-room-only, citizen-activist "meet-ups." No more donations streaming into the Dean for America Web site like water getting sucked through a straw. No more twentysomething Deaniacs hitting the streets with big, take-back-your-country smiles and bright-orange knit caps.

He went from major factor to footnote so fast it's as if somebody hit the delete-Howard command on a Campaign 2004 computer game. Disappointments of this magnitude leave a void in a life like Trippi's that can't be filled by simply becoming a regular guest on Hardball, not when you're still jazzed from having spent month after month choreographing an election ballet and carrying on late-night blogathons with cyberspacemen coast to coast, all the while subsisting on cold pizza and mainlining Diet Pepsi (hardly the recommended meal plan for a diabetic) and, on at least one occasion, falling asleep standing up. And not when you're a bloodied veteran of seven presidential runs.

"The easy thing," says Trippi, sitting in his enclosed back porch overlooking 48 acres of prime Maryland flatland and a sailboat he never has time to sail, "would be to say, `Democracy is someone else's problem. Go do it!' But I really believe we're at a pivotal point in America's history."

He believes everything Dean said about health-care reform and the lunacy of special-interest government and an ill-conceived Iraq war, plus the abiding need for Democrats to stop being such wusses and stand up tall to George Bush. He believes so strongly that, at age 47, he's willing to learn some new tricks himself.

Three days after Howard Dean shut down his candidacy on Feb. 18, Trippi and wife Kathy Lash (she served as a deputy press secretary on the campaign) played host to 28 staffers and volunteers at their Talbot County farm over a long weekend. Hoping to bottle the collective Deaniac energy before it dissipates, they posted an open letter on Trippi's new Web site, Change for America: "We reaffirm our commitment to bringing change to the country ... . Change for America will be a national organization that unites progressive communities and sets an agenda for meaningful reform."

In other words, the beat goes on ... without Dean.

Trippi and friends intend to create a more left-leaning, "grassroots version" of the Democratic Leadership Council, the quasi-think tank that's long been aligned with party centrists such as Bill Clinton and Joe Lieberman. No campaign manager (certainly no losing campaign manager) has ever left the political sidelines in order to play a prominent role in launching a reform movement. But the Change for America initiative - amorphous though it may be at this stage - isn't entirely out of character for Trippi.

"He tends toward populism, personally," says Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, and admittedly no fan of hired-gun campaign operatives. "Maybe he sees no contradiction between being a millionaire and a populist."

Trippi equates the "bottoms-up," Internet-based campaign he largely engineered to the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon debate, generally regarded as television's political-impact coming-of-age party. Self-serving, post-mortem hype? Maybe. But James Carville, who attained folk-hero status as the campaign manager who pushed Clinton across the presidential finish line in 1992, says of the Dean phenomenon, "There's no other book I want to read about the 2004 campaign."

Even Sabato agrees that the Dean machine broke important new ground: "The fund-raising and organizational capabilities that have been combined by this campaign really will change politics forever."

Forever?

Before discounting the notion consider a few attention-grabbing statistics:

When Trippi joined the campaign in January 2003, there were 432 identifiable Dean supporters. He implemented his Internet-dependent game plan, and the list peaked at more than 600,000.

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