Now we know why George W. Bush signed the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill. He understood that the provision most directly affecting his future–the doubling of individual contribution limits to $2,000–would automatically double the size of his already record-breaking financial base. His initially stated fundraising goal of $170 million, which his campaign officials now say will not be enough, is likely to rise to a quarter-billion dollars or higher. This threatens to tilt the electoral playing field into a vertical rock-climb for his Democratic challenger.

Bush is thereby gutting the public financing system for the presidential primaries. Howard Dean’s decision to be the first Democrat ever to opt out of that system must be seen in that context. When it became clear that Dean could exceed the $45 million cap that comes with taking public matching funds, staying in became self-defeating. Some candidates criticized Dean, but they would have done the same if they’d raised $25 million, mostly in contributions of $200 or less. This is small-d democracy, as in “small donor.” Dick Gephardt, the only top-tier Democrat not to sign a pledge written by six campaign-reform groups (Public Campaign, Public Citizen, Common Cause, USPIRG, the League of Women Voters and Democracy 21) because he claimed that the pledge didn’t bind candidates to the system during the current cycle, is the most hypocritical–his union backers plan to spend significant sums in his behalf in Iowa and other early-primary states.

Dennis Kucinich, who blasted Dean for breaking his promise to stay in the system, accused the wrong guy of “attempt[ing] to kill public financing” and “take back America–for the corporations.” That guy is Bush, not Dean. John Kerry simultaneously attacked Dean’s move and hinted that he would opt out too (an announcement was scheduled for November 13), another example of how he keeps contradicting himself. Kerry has wisely pledged to keep to the $45 million spending limit as long as the nomination is unsettled, a stance Dean should also adopt. To Dean’s credit, he coupled his pullout with a call for reform measures, including a 5-to-1 public funding match on the first $100 of every contribution to presidential or congressional candidates. This could encourage other people-powered candidates, especially if it included an overall cap of, say, $250 on all contributions.

The situation has insiders like Al From, head of the business-oriented Democratic Leadership Council, grumbling that Dean’s small-donor base is tilting the party leftward. Dean, the front-runner, has already advanced further than Jesse Jackson in 1988 and Jerry Brown in 1992, who were also fueled by small donors rather than fat cats.

But Dean’s success is a double-edged sword. If he wins the primaries, he’ll become the candidate of every $2,000 check-writer now backing more traditionally funded Democrats. So far, he has adroitly managed to attract grassroots Dems who want to reshape the party as much as they want to beat Bush. But this stockbroker’s son who catered to business interests while governor of Vermont is hardly the populist tribune.

That doesn’t appear to matter to his followers, who are rightly focused on the challenge of beating Bush. But if Dean or any other Democrat who opts out of public financing ends up beating Bush by turning into another big-money candidate, the victory will be mixed. Small-d activists, whether Deanites or not, will have to press hard to make sure this doesn’t happen.