The funding horse is out of the barn

I watched Monday with some interest as President Bush rightly called for the end of all participation in the election of our next president. These “independent” committees (the latest of which is the "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth") have been collectively spending millions to influence the outcome of this year’s elections.

These committees work through a loophole that often masks their funding, and their true purpose until it is politically too late for the other side to do much about it.  You often hear pundits and even the President refer to them in inside Washington talk as “soft money” committees.   

In plain English a “soft money” committee is a committee that can take a check in any amount from essentially any contributor it wants and thereby escape the spending and contribution limits, and reporting requirements imposed by the Federal Elections Commission.  In other words they work far outside the bounds of what candidates and their campaigns are allowed to do in terms of raising money and reporting their activities.

For 13 months, I worked for Howard Dean’s campaign for president, with the notion of overthrowing the power of unregulated money in our politics as one of my goals.  It does not matter to me which party is doing it, it’s not good for participatory democracy.  Hell, about how the American people themselves are the only ones with the power to change this messed up system that is polluting our politics and our society – because deep down I don’t think either political party will do it for us.

I saw in Iowa how two 527 committees from two different sides of the political spectrum went to work on Howard Dean. Americans for Jobs, Healthcare and Progressive Values – was a committee formed with a nice sounding name, and ran hundreds of thousands of dollars in advertising attacking Howard Dean. The problem was that no one, not the media, not the committee, could or would say who had funded the attack until the Iowa caucuses were nearly over.  It would turn out (after it was too late to expose them) that Americans for Jobs and all those other great things were really a bunch of fundraising pals of Dick Gephardt and John Kerry.  

On the other side of the spectrum was the conservative Club of Growth 527 committee—funded by a bunch of folks on the right who spent a ton of money in Iowa smearing Dean’s supporters as latte-drinking, sushi-eating freaks. This is a charge that was as disgusting as it was untrue— but with 527s there is no responsibility for the truth and no one to be held accountable.

Double standard?

So it should be clear that I agree with President Bush that 527’s must go. But I also have some insight into the single act that got us to this place, and unfortunately that act was taken by George Bush and his campaign four years ago.

In the 2000 election cycle, George Bush became the first major party candidate in history to opt out of public funding and the spending limits that were imposed on both parties until Bush’s fateful decision.  Bush could raise and spend any amount he wanted – and he did.  As a matter of crass politics, Al Gore’s biggest mistake in 2000, was not opting out as well – Gore stayed within the system and accepted the imposed spending limits. 

Outspent by millions, Gore still achieved a popular vote victory.  But the damage was done.  The Bush campaign of 2000 had opened the door to unlimited spending with no limits. A party or a candidate, or a committee that stayed within that system while George Bush and his campaign raised and spent unlimited funds in 2004 would be declaring unilateral disarmament and almost certain defeat.  

Deja vu

The Bush campaign, having broken every record for spending in 2000, boldly and brashly bragged that they would do double that in 2004 (and they are).  

Democrats and progressives fearing that the Democratic nominee would make the same mistake in 2004 that Al Gore made in 2000 (the fear that the nominee would do the “goody two shoes” right thing and stay within the system and abide by the limits— only to be crushed by a Bush campaign that was pledging to blow out of the system by raising more money than had ever been seen in American politics) responded by starting up 527s that would live outside the spending limits even if the Democratic nominee was stupid enough, or naïve enough, or righteous enough to stay in the system.

And so 527s started up on both sides.  The spending limits that George Bush alone broke in 2000, are now being broken by everyone on both sides, and the result is that a staggering $1.6 billion (yes billion) will be spent on political television advertising in this year’s election.

What no one in the Bush campaign, or for the matter the Democratic party counted on was the Dean campaign.   There was no way we were going to do the “goody-two-shoes” thing and stay in the system only to be crushed by George Bush and his money machine. But there was also no way we were going to break the system by forming soft money committees or by taking millions from corporate or wealthy contributors.

We set out to get hundreds of thousands of Americans involved in politics again— and we opted out of the system to empower the American people themselves to change a system that is now broken and rotted to the core.

What no one counted on was that Howard Dean’s campaign would awaken enough Americans to take part by making small contributions that we would be able to opt out of the system.  

Only two entities that I know of recognized both that the system was broken, and that only the American people themselves had the power to fix it. That the only way to break outside of the system and to stay true to the principles of participatory democracy was to get millions of Americans to get involved, participate and pool their money to change and reform the system by the sheer power of the American people doing it for themselves. One was the Dean campaign, 650,000 Americans strong; the other was, over 2 million Americans strong.

Mr. President, the system is broken, but do you not see what your first campaign wrought?

We can all stand up now and say — "527s be gone."  But there is a reason they exist.

After 30 years in politics, I am certain of only one thing: Only the American people have the power to change this, as you read this no one is going to change America and our politics for you – you have to do it for yourself,  it is the duty of each of us as citizens to do what we can.  

So get involved, work for Kerry, Bush, or Nader.  And remember one thing the Dean campaign proved: Every dollar you give to the candidate of your choice weakens the hold that the big money has on our politics.   

Joe Trippi, Howard Dean's former campaign manager, is an MSNBC contributor and a political analyst for "Hardball with Chris Matthews."  He's contributes to Hardball's "Hardblogger," weblog, and is author of "The Revolution Will Not be Televised: Democracy, the Internet and the Overthrow of Everything."