Those of us who support Howard Dean had more to celebrate on Dec. 31 than just the dawn of a New Year. By midnight, after dispatching a barrage of last minute fund-raising e-mails to his half-million internet supporters, Dean had managed to raise over 15 million dollars for the final quarter of the year, bringing his total take for 2003 to a cool 40 million. Not bad, for a governor whose chances of capturing the Democratic nomination at the beginning of 2003 were about as good as “Gigli’s” odds of winning an Oscar.
As pundits, skeptics and the eight other presidential hopefuls never tire of pointing out, Howard Dean is not a perfect candidate. He is blunt, a cardinal sin for any man who seeks the White House, and this bluntness has led on more than one occasion to public relations gaffes. He is perceived by some as too liberal, by others as too angry, and by many as the candidate for white and wired yuppies “Huey Long for the iPod set,” in the words of New York Times columnist David Brooks.
All of these charges are essentially unfair. The briefest of glances at Dean’s record as governor of Vermont reveals that he is not a knee-jerk liberal. If he is angry, it is because George Bush has given us much to be angry about, and, unless the country gets angry, it will not fire its sitting president. He may be the candidate for white yuppies, but his appeal is far more extensive, as demonstrated by the endorsement of the multiracial SEIU, a national union with 1.6 million members, including Yale’s own unionized workers. If Yale students and Yale dining hall workers can line up behind the same candidate, that certainly suggests Dean’s support is broader than his critics say.
Even those doubters who claim that Dean is too liberal, too angry and too white, however, cannot deny that in one crucial area Dean represents a powerful force of change for the better. The $40 million mentioned above is an unprecedented amount of cash for a Democrat to raise in an off year. None of the other eight candidates running will come close; Clinton fell short even when he was the incumbent president. Granted, that $40 million is dwarfed by the obscenely mammoth sum of over $130 million, by all accounts that the Bush-Cheney money machine vacuumed in over the course of 2003.
The problem is that, in Bush’s case, this money was raised almost exclusively from his very rich supporters. Over 70 percent of all that money came in the form of hulking $2,000 checks which individuals are now permitted to write to candidates. Most families, even families who can send their kids to schools like Yale without assistance, can’t afford to shell out two thousand bucks on a lark. In short, the Bush campaign is being funded by this country’s millionaires. And a closer look at the methodology used by Republican financiers reveals that the situation is even bleaker; using a system of “bundling,” lobbyists and businessmen are recruiting as many as a hundred friends and colleagues to also contribute the maximum $2,000, so that often a single individual is responsible for raising the administration nearly a quarter of a million. Next time that executive or lobbyist wants a political favor, do you think it will be denied?
Even some of the other Democratic candidates are relying on the $2,000 checks to a disturbing degree; for instance, over 60 percent of all the money Senator John Edwards has raised for his presidential bid has come from such maximum donations. By contrast, $2,000 contributions account for less than 20 percent of Dean’s money; the governor relies instead on the far smaller donations, usually of $100 or less, which flood into his campaign via the Internet. More than 200,000 Americans felt strongly enough about Howard Dean to go to his Web site and contribute to his cause in 2003, and the beauty is that Dean isn’t beholden to any of them. He has raised 40 million dollars from an army of normal citizens. Bush has raised 130 million dollars from a band of a few hundred businessmen and lobbyists, all of whom want to see their investments pay off. Which man would you rather have as your president?
If Howard Dean gets the nomination, the 2004 election will become a fight between two candidates who represent two fundamentally different systems of campaign finance. We all recognize, or should recognize, the destructive and corrosive impact that money generally has in American politics; for too long, our politicians have been too accountable to the special interests who fund them and not accountable enough to the citizens who elect them. While the McCain-Feingold law banning soft money has improved the situation in some respects, the tactics of Bush’s backers nevertheless demonstrate that a president can still be bought if lobbyists and corporate executives are willing to spend enough time and money buying him.
Howard Dean’s election would cause that system to come crashing down. If he manages the unthinkable, if he actually raises enough money from enough grassroot supporters — say, $100 from 2 million people — to propel him into the White House, then for the first time in a long time the leader of the free world would not be beholden to wealthy special interests. Democracy means, in part, accountability to the general public, and Howard Dean’s victory would increase that accountability immeasurably. The fight to elect him will be an uphill battle, a difficult struggle against a popular president. But for those who believe that a president needs to be accountable to the people he is supposed to represent, it will be a fight worth waging.