Friday, August 22, 2003

Dean's Finance Flip-Flop, Cont.: In TNR's Primary, Jonathan Cohn follows up a half-hearted critique of Howard Dean's decision to opt out of public financing with a half-hearted defense of the fact that he's done it before:
. . . Dean had once signed Vermont's "Clean Elections" law; in 2000, he was planning to run under its auspices, meaning he would forgo serious fundraising efforts and abide by a government-set spending limit in exchange for accepting public campaign financing. But then Dean changed his mind: he opted out of the public system and raised his own money, well beyond the limits the Clean Elections option would have imposed. "All of that moral pontificating didn't amount to much when the money became the issue," said Ruth Dwyer, Dean's Republican opponent in that race. "I've seen him do that on many occasions."

Perhaps. But keep in mind the real circumstances of the 2000 election: It came right in the wake of Dean's most controversial move as governor, signing a bill legalizing civil unions for gay couples. That decision drew the ire of conservative groups and financiers across the nation, enabling Dwyer to opt out of the public system--something she was only too happy to do. Dean's choice was to do the same, in order to keep pace, or to stick with a public finance system that would have left him woefully underfunded against what was about to become the most vitriolic statewide campaign in memory.

Translation: Dean was afraid he would lose under the "Clean Elections" law he signed. Squawk on about out-of-state money if you please, but Dean was in trouble for doing something that many people in Vermont didn't like. (I support civil unions, but I don't dispute the right of Vermonters to have problems with it, particularly how it was imposed.) Supporting public financing until you're in trouble does not demonstrate any strength of character.

I wrote a piece for my town newspaper a couple years ago about integrity in political campaigns. In it I noted that Russ Feingold ran his last senatorial campaign without soft money, reasoning that since his McCain-Feingold bill targeted soft money (even though it was not yet law), he should stand on the principle he supports. The GOP knew that this would make him vulnerable, and Feingold knew that they knew. He won anyway. I don't think I've ever agreed with Russ Feingold on politics, especially campaign finance, but good for him for putting his money where his mouth is.

In contrast I wrote about Massachusetts Rep. Marty Meehan. When Marty first ran, his pet issue was term limits, and he pledged not to run again after four terms. Surprise! He ran again, in 2000, for a fifth term . . . and won a sixth term in 2002. And when a term limits lobbying group ran a television ad pointing out Meehan's duplicity, Meehan's campaign called the ad . . . wait for it . . . "a publicity stunt by a right-wing special interest group." How original.

Dean's flip-flop is sheer political hackery, like Meehan's -- a case of wanting the office more than the principles. No matter how much you gussy it with talk of being financially competetive, Dean flaked out on Clean Elections because he wanted to win re-election.

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