Will Howard Dean do what he just said he would?

Dispatches from Campaign 2004.
Nov. 7 2003 12:30 AM

"We'll See If It Happens"

Will Howard Dean do what he just said he would?

NASHUA, N.H.—The metaphor of choice for Howard Dean's Internet-fueled campaign is "open-source politics": a two-way campaign in which the supporters openly collaborate with the campaign to improve it, and in which the contributions of the "group mind" prove smarter than that of any lone individual.

Dean campaign manager Joe Trippi has admitted on numerous occasions (including this Slashdot post) that his time in Silicon Valley affected his thinking about politics. "I used to work for a little while for Progeny Linux Systems," Trippi told cyber-guru Lawrence Lessig in an August interview. "I always wondered how could you take that same collaboration that occurs in Linux and open source and apply it here. What would happen if there were a way to do that and engage everybody in a presidential campaign?"

But tonight, at the end of a town hall meeting at Daniel Webster College, is the first time I've seen the metaphor in action. Even if it had nothing to do with the Internet.

At the end of tonight's event, Paul Johnson, an independent voter from Nashua who supported John McCain in 2000 and has supported Dean since May, tells Dean that he's "deeply troubled" by the idea that his candidate is going to turn down federal matching funds and bust the caps on campaign spending. Politics is awash in too much money, Johnson says. Why not take the moral high ground and abide by the current system? That sounds like a great idea until Bush spends $200 million, Dean says. Well, then "challenge him to spend less," Johnson replies. Tell him you'll stay under the spending limits if he does, too. Dean's face lights up. "I'll do that at the press conference on Saturday," he says. "That's a great idea." (Saturday at noon is when Dean is scheduled to announce the results of the campaign vote on whether to abandon public financing.)

I walk over to Dean's New Hampshire press secretary, Matthew Gardner, and tell him his candidate just agreed, in an instant, to announce on Saturday that he'll stay under the federal spending caps for publicly financed candidates, if President Bush agrees to do the same (which, admittedly, is more than a little unlikely.) Gardner looks puzzled, then laughs. "That'll be interesting," he says. "We'll see if it happens."

Chris Suellentrop is the deputy editor for blogs at Yahoo News and a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine. He has reviewed video games for Slate, Rolling Stone, and NewYorker.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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