Joe Trippi's next big thing

Howard Dean's campaign wizard is now a consultant without a candidate, but he's giving John Kerry free advice: Reject public financing and turn to your base to neutralize the Bush money juggernaut.

Published July 26, 2004 11:49PM (EDT)

"The first thing you need to know is I'm certifiably insane," Joe Trippi warned a small group of fans at the Americans Coming Together hospitality suite Monday afternoon. Trippi isn't insane, but it's true that Gov. Howard Dean's former campaign manager is cutting an odd figure at the convention, a consultant without a candidate. Even if he's not working for John Kerry, Trippi is still trying to give Kerry advice. His big idea in Boston: that Kerry should boldly reject public financing, the way Dean did during the primaries, and turn to his base to help him out-fundraise the mighty Bush machine.

At the ACT event 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 says he doesn't expect Kerry to take his advice. Indeed, the man ACT's Harold Ickes credited with giving the Democrats "a voice and a backbone" is working the convention for MSNBC, not the Democrats. At the packed New York Times party Sunday night, Trippi seemed occasionally lost and forlorn, but he's also made a schtick of his outsider status. To the extent that he namedrops, it's to tell you which bigwig Democrats hate him. Yet every few minutes someone would come up and shake his hand, bedazzled. "Thank you for saving our party," a well-dressed 50-something white man told the rumpled Trippi.

And while Trippi insists his idea has little or no support -- Kerry has repeatedly pledged to abide by public financing laws -- he's even written the bones of a speech the nominee could give to announce his bold decision. "On Thursday night he'd say something like, 'I accept the nomination, and I'm gonna do something tonight that I should have done a long, long time ago: I'm going to put my candidacy in your hands. Instead of getting a check for $75 million tomorrow [the total he'd be able to spend if he stayed within the public financing system] I'm getting a check for zero. I'll raise the money I need from you -- and I'll take no check over $250.' That would complete what the Dean campaign started,'" Trippi insists.

It would certainly solve a campaign problem even public financing fans have had to acknowledge: The early timing of the Democratic convention, combined with the late date of the Republicans', has increased the GOP's traditional cash advantage, because each candidate can only spend his $75 million between the time he accepts the nomination and election day. "People think [the GOP] chose the date because it's close to 9/11 -- that's not it," Trippi says. "They knew it would make Kerry start spending a month earlier." Plus, once Kerry locks himself into public financing, Bush can still opt out.

But there are problems with Trippi's idea too. One is the fact that if Kerry revved up his fundraising machine again he'd be competing with national Democratic congressional and state candidates, to their chagrin. He'd also have to concentrate on raising money -- even the Internet isn't effortless -- at a time when advisers think he should be out wooing voters. And some worry his plan could backfire on the Democrats, by unleashing a new campaign-contribution arms race that the GOP would in the end win, given its superior resource base. After all, Democrats have favored campaign finance as a kind of multilateral disarmament that has seemed their only hope in trying to neutralize the GOP's wealthy-donor advantage.

After his talk, I asked Trippi if his plan could backfire and escalate a new campaign-spending arms race Democrats would lose. "Sure, it could backfire, but only if we blow it," Trippi said. "We could be the Japanese at Pearl Harbor, waking up the other side, if we don't do it right. But we have the advantage right now."

Trippi says he is encouraged by ACT and other efforts to register and turn out the Democratic base this year. He predicts voter turnout will rise "at least three to four percent" in November, and then makes one last pitch for his big idea: "Or it could be exponentially higher if [Kerry] did something like I'm suggesting."

Additional reporting by Jeff Horwitz

By Joan Walsh

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Howard Dean