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?

Neel was part of Washington’s insider network–which does not look out for the people Dean claims he wants to empower. In 1999 and 2000, the USTA spent $3.5 million to lobby Congress, according to lobbying reports it filed. (The association probably spent more; not all lobbying activity is reported.) To help the telecoms, Neel recruited other influence peddlers in town, including the lobbying firm of Haley Barbour, who then chaired the Republican National Committee. Other Barbour clients: British American Tobacco, the Edison Electric Institute, Glaxo Wellcome, Lockheed Martin, Microsoft, Philip Morris. Neel’s outfit also retained Wallman Strategic Consulting, which represented General Motors and WorldCom.

To increase the odds that members of Congress would heed the pleas of telecom companies, the U.S. Telecom Association, through its political action committee, donated generously to incumbent legislators. In the 1998 and 2000 election cycles, it doled out $266,000 to members of the House and Senator. Nearly 80 percent of that went to Republicans. GOPers helped by this PAC included Representatives Dick Armey, Bob Barr, Tom DeLay, Newt Gingrich, Dennis Hastert and Henry Hyde and Senators John Ashcroft, Sam Brownback, Bill Frist, Orrin Hatch and Trent Lott.

It really seems that Neel was committed to bringing change to Washington.

Neel might well be a fine person, a good CEO, a believer (on his own time) in the values of the Democratic Party. But he was a bigtime player in the very game that Dean claims he wants to destroy. Dean’s choice of Neel suggests Dean is clueless or disingenuous. Does he not know what it means to head the U.S. Telecom Association? Does he not understand that it is wrong–or, at the least, ill-considered–to place a lobbyist at the front of a charge on Washington? Was he not worried that this action would cause his opponents, the media and–most importantly–his devoted supporters to question his sincerity and his judgment?

There has always been a disconnect in the Dean campaign between the man and the movement. If two years ago someone cooked up the idea to create a progressive, reform-minded grassroots crusade that would focus on harnessing “people power” to confront Washington’s money-and-power culture and a leader for such an effort was needed, Dean’s name would not have jumped to mind. Senator Paul Wellstone maybe, not Dean. Yet thousands of Americans were yearning for such an endeavor, and Dean found a way to tap into their desires. It was not the most natural or conventional of couplings, but it happened. And he was propelled to the front of the presidential pack.

Is Dean filing for divorce? By turning toward Neel to save his campaign, Dean is not breaking new ground in American politics, for presidential candidates have long enlisted K Street lobbyists to aid their campaigns. Gore brought in Tony Coehlo, a well-connected lobbyist and former House member, to skipper his 2000 campaign when it hit trouble. And it would be no surprise to find special interests lobbyists on the payroll of Senators John Kerry or John Edwards. Retired General Wesley Clark was a lobbyist himself before entering the contest. But by adhering to this tradition, Dean has signaled that he is not fully committed to his core message–unless he wants to argue that it takes a thief to catch a thief. But does he really believe it takes a corporate lobbyist to “take back America” from the corporate lobbyists? Let him explain that in one of the e-mails he regularly sends his thousands of followers. They trusted Dean, and there is nothing wrong with hope. But as Dean fans deal with the disappointment of New Hampshire, he has delivered them more bad news to process. Looking at the Neel move–a scream of a different sort–it would not be unreasonable for any Deaniac who embraced this campaign as a reform movement to say, Stick a fork in it; it’s done.

SEE DAVID CORN’S Ten Talking Points on the New Hampshire Results

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