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January 23, 2007

Buying and Selling the Presidency

Today The New York Times is writing the obituary of the federal public financing system,  and we can thank politicians on both sides of the aisle for it's creeping death.  In other words: thank you John Connally, George W. Bush, John Kerry and -- the new grande dame of fundraising -- Hillary Clinton.

The current system was created as an answer to campaign corruption exposed in the Watergate scandal.  Its basic element is familiar to all of us who fill out a tax return -- checking off that little box to set aside $3 for the public financing system. For many American taxpayers there's always been confusion about where that $3 comes from. Mistakenly, it's often believed that the almost infinitesimal amount (the cost of one latte) comes straight out of our pockets. Wrong. We don't fork over any extra to buy into the system, because the $3 is taken directly from the tax we owe in the first place. But myths take on a life of their own, and, coupled with the reality that many Americans have a knee-jerk reaction to anything with the words "publicly funded" in the title and still believe the conventional wisdom that the moneymen deserve more speech, only a paltry 10% of taxpayers are participating in the federal system. WIthout going into how pathetic I think that is... it means there aren't enough funds generated to adequately finance all the major campaigns in a presidential election cycle, and that's due to the fact that candidates opting out of the system make it virtually impossible for their challengers to compete with the big bucks they'll rake in from their most effective fundraising machines.

That's where people like George W. Bush, John Kerry and Hillary Clinton, in particular, factor in to the scenario. Bush and Kerry, in 2004, both opted out of public financing for the primary election (Connally had opted out of the public funding more than 20 years earlier, but ended up a distant runner). In addition, Bush took advantage of the loopholes in campaign finance reform legislation, which put strict limits on individual donors, but made it possible for lobbyists to "bundle" numerous contributions into a huge lump sum for the candidate. Remember Bush's favorite "bundlers", his Pioneers ($100,000) and Rangers ($200,000)?

Clinton has bolted out of the gate with the announcement that she will forego public money for both the primary and the general election. She is the first presidential candidate to do so, and you can bet that her DLC fixers are dancing a drunken jig over the news. She can tap into individual donors twice in the same election year, up to $2100 each for the primary and general, totalling $4200 per individual donor. Furthermore, when she files her quarterly disclosure of campaign finances in April, it will show a nice big sack of cash -- big enough, she hopes, to intimidate and discourage any competitors.

Is this what the electorate really wants? An unlimited plowing for contributions that seem to grow exponentially with each election cycle? How much money is enough? How much is too much? Public financing advocate David Sirota believes that after a certain amount it's just overkill, because there are only just so many hours in a day to run those obnoxious ads. And what about the issues voters want the candidates to focus on? When special interest money is the goal, the public interest goes right out the window.

As previously noted here, candidates in Maine and Arizona have already proven how well public financing works. Continuing to push for these systems at the state level is paramount to making it happen nationally, because once voters see for themselves how much cleaner -- and more effective -- these political campaigns are, they'll be clamoring for the same system at the national level.

$3 taken from what you already owe. It's not much to ask, and the results could be phenomenal. Don't let them finish that obituary. The patient may be on life support, but it's the backward politicians, not the forward-thinking citizens, who keep trying to pull the plug.

Posted by shoephone on January 23, 2007 at 03:25 AM in Candidate Races, National and International Politics | Permalink

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