Hillary Clinton

The Tragedy of Joe Trippi

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Listening in to a conference call with the top brass of the John Edwards campaign, I was pleased to hear Garance Franke-Ruta ask the question I wanted to ask. Basically: Edwards's people say the campaign is going to take public financing because the amount of money in politics is "disgusting" and dis-empowers voters and they want to set us all on the path to public financing. Franke-Ruta noticed that Edwards consultant/former Howard Dean campaign manager Joe Trippi was oppugning Hillary but not mentioning Obama, so:

Asked about whether the campaign had similar concerns about Barack Obama, who is also rejecting the public financing system during the primary, and whose campaign recently announced more than 350,000 donors making more than 500,000 donations so far this year, Trippi's voice changed and softened. "Up until today Obama has not joined us" in pledging to take public funds, he said. "Obama in the Senate race did take PAC and lobbyist money. In this race he hasn't, but again, the sharpest division is between us and Hillary Clinton on this… At this point in time the American people are going to have a clear choice."

This was a huge and snigger-worthy diversion. I can't believe that Trippi is excited about framing the election this way. He obviously loathes old-style bundling-and-$1000-plate fundraising dinner politics: "There are few things I hate more than this self-defeating system of politics, and I am confident that one day soon it will be lying in a heap alongside the road," he wrote in his 2004 memoir The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.

But it's 2007 and that political system is halfway to the landfill, and one of the biggest reasons is: Joe Trippi. In 2003 the Dean campaign held a vote on its blog, asking supporters if the campaign should go off public financing and instead try to out-raise the Bush campaign with hundreds of thousands of small donations. The anti-public financiers won, 85-15, and Dean became the first Democrat to run outside the public financing system. After leaving the campaign Trippi saw this as a defining moment:

… Trippi insisted "the most significant event" of the watershed Dean campaign was the "four days in November" when Dean opted out of public financing, followed by Kerry. "That's when 300,000 Dean supporters screwed up Karl Rove's plans," Trippi recalled, by telling the former Vermont governor it was OK to reject public financing, long a pet cause of progressives, to use his amazing Internet base to challenge the GOP's cash dominance—which allowed Kerry to follow suit.

Republicans "just didn't believe it," Trippi recalls. "They thought those goody two-shoes progressives would stay with public financing while they opted out." And in the end, Trippi insists, Dean's decision helped Kerry, who's been able to raise $182 million to Bush's $215 million this primary season, as opposed to the $45 million he'd have had to spend if he'd stayed with public financing.

Trippi understands that the modest-but-revolutionary advance of web-based donations has opened up politics far more than the split-the-baby public financing system ever could. It's excruciating watching him argue for the old, broken system.

I chucked public funds-related CFR into a cistvaen earlier this year.