Last week, Governor Howard Dean was the front-runner everyone wanted to attack. And he gave his opponents some good reasons. After all, his statement that he wanted to be "the candidate for guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks" was wrong and stupid. Wrong because the confederate flag is a loathsome symbol, which reopens old wounds and perpetuates old hatreds. And stupid because his statement caricatured the South's white working class.
But Dean was also right politically. As he said in reply to the Reverend Al Sharpton's attack on him, the Democratic Party isn't "going to win in this country anymore as Democrats if we don't have a big tent." It is high time for the Dems to engage in a serious discussion about how to win back working-class white voters in the South. As leading civil rights attorney Connie Rice wrote, in a nuanced defense of Dean, "Without a vision big enough to embrace southern white men--angry or not--this country cannot be diverted from its current path toward corporation-focused, downwardly mobile plutocracy and turned back toward people-focused, upwardly mobile democracy...We need to get beyond fighting over Confederate symbols and get to the critical re-founding of this country for its people."
As our Washington correspondent John Nichols recently reported, polls show that rural Americans are even more concerned than urban voters about access to healthcare, education and job loss under Bush. And with the massive job loss in the South, the Dems need to pump up the populist economic volume to counter the cynical and divisive tactics of the Southern Republican right. The bottom-line should be clear: A populist Democratic nominee fighting the next election on behalf of jobs, family farms, healthcare and education could give George "Herbert Hoover" Bush a real race in a region that the GOP now takes for granted. If the Administration's economic policies continue to destroy the industrial base of the region, the South need not be solid for Bush in 2004.
Then there was the attack on Dean by the other Democratic candidates for his decision to opt out of the presidential public financing system. Progressive candidate Dennis Kucinich, for example, attacked the former Vermont Governor for dealing a serious blow to efforts to keep money from dominating politics.
But aren't Kucinich and other candidates misreading the moment? As several leading campaign finance reformers argue, what's important is that a candidate be true to the spirit of the campaign finance law (i.e., level the playing field, reduce special interest influence, enhance the role of small donors), while facing up to the fact that the system has been wrecked by Bush's decision to opt out.
The McCain-Feingold bill is not working (the doubling of individual contributions to $2,000 has enriched Bush Inc.) and what's relevant, many reformers point out, is not how a candidate operates under the current system but what proposals they offer to repair it. (Dean's proposal for a dramatic overhaul of presidential public financing system---offering a five to one match of relatively small donations--would be a big step in the right direction.)
Dean's decision to opt out--through polling his supporters in a typically savvy display of grassroots engagement (85,000 of the 105,000 people who "voted" through e-mail, internet, telephone or regular mail, supported his decision)--was virtually a foregone conclusion as soon as it became apparent that his fundraising potential could exceed the $45 million cap that comes with accepting public matching funds in the primaries. In an ideal world, no candidate would have to consider opting out of the public financing system, but when one candidate declines it and that candidate's opponent accepts a $45 million spending cap, the playing field is not level. (Bush expects to raise close to $200 million for the general election, more than twice what the campaign spending limits for those receiving matching funds allow.)
It's no secret that many of the other candidates who criticized Dean for opting out would do the same thing if they were in his position. (In fact, John Kerry is said to be strongly leaning toward following Dean's lead, though he has said he would abide by the $45 million spending limit until the Democratic nominee is known--something Dean should also agree to.) And while I admire and respect Kucinich, he is attacking the wrong guy when he accuses Dean of "attempt[ing] to kill public financing" and "taking back America--for the corporations." That guy is Bush, not Dean. If Dean were as dependent on $2,000 corporate check writers as the other leading Democrats and Bush, perhaps Kucinich's charge would have more bite.
In announcing his decision, Dean insisted that he is empowering his army of small donors to defeat "the unabashed actions of this president to thwart our democratic processes with a flood of special interest money...Our campaign has not been talking of campaign finance reform. It has been actual reform. Over 200,000 people have given an average of $77." (The value of small donors was unwittingly revealed by John Kerry's former campaign manager Jim Jordan, who just yesterday lamented that Dean's large base of small donors are "disproportionately liberal," which empowers candidates who appeal to those from "the left side of the spectrum.")
It remains to be seen whether Dean's new--possibly transformative--way of raising funds will free him, as he argued in a November 10 Wall Street Journal Op-ed, "from answering to anyone except the people themselves." (Let's hope it frees him from those like former Clinton Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin who reportedly told Dean last August that "I can't sell you on Wall Street," unless he reconsidered his position on trade.)
Sure, there are examples of Dean tilting toward corporate demands--both in his years as Vermont Governor and in his current campaign. But the vision of a people-powered campaign fueled by small donors challenging the most capital intensive President in US history is an enticing prospect.