I don’t tend to endorse candidates. I’ll leave that to Michael Moore. But I do feel like dis-endorsing a presidential candidate: Howard Dean.
This has nothing to do with the former Vermont governor’s loss to Senator John Kerry in the New Hampshire Democratic presidential primary. It has to do with Dean’s decision to fire Joe Trippi, his campaign manager, and hand control to Roy Neel.
I am not defending Trippi. I happen to like him and thought he did a marvelous job using the new tools of the Internet to turn a little-known governor into both a top-tier presidential candidate and the leader of what appeared to be a movement of reform-minded citizens who wanted to bring public-interest democracy to Washington. But the relationship between candidate and consultant is akin to a marriage; it is hard for outsiders to know truly what goes on between the two. Perhaps Trippi and Dean had disagreements over the direction of the campaign. Maybe Trippi shortchanged the organizational needs of the campaign or failed to manage its growth effectively. Did Dean object to Trippi showing up for television interviews looking bedraggled? Dean might be searching for a scapegoat, and there’s an old saying in politics, “you can’t fire the candidate.” And here’s a new one: a scream once screamed cannot be unscreamed.
So it’s Dean’s right to boot Trippi. What warrants criticism is his decision to put his campaign in the mitts of a Washington insider. Neel, a former Al Gore aide, was head of the U.S. Telecom Association in Washington in the late 1990s until he left to join Gore’s 2000 campaign. The USTA lobbies on behalf of the telecommunications industry. As its lead lobbyist, Neel was the embodiment of the “special interests” that Dean has assailed on the campaign trail.
For much of the past week, I listened to Dean repeatedly bemoan the influence of corporate lobbyists as he crisscrossed New Hampshire. A sampling:
* “All the things that happen in Washington happen for the benefit of corporations and special interests.”
* “This government is run by a president who cares more about corporations than he does about ordinary Americans, and that is why I’m running.”
* “The ordinary people in this country are supposed to be running it.”
* “There are no special interests in Washington who can buy us.”
No, we only let them oversee our campaigns.
Since entering the race, Dean has insistently said, “we have to take our country back” from the special interests. The slogan on his bus reads, “You Have The Power.” He has decried the hold that business interests have on the federal government. Well, what does he think Neel did when he ran the telecom lobby? Did Neel go up to Capitol Hill–or send his underlings–to beseech legislators to pass legislation with consumers foremost in mind? Did he use his connections with the Clinton-Gore administration to help out consumer advocates trying to protect the rights of “ordinary Americans” as Congress and regulatory agencies handled telecom issues? Is maple syrup good for your teeth?