Saturday, April 26, 2008

Funding a Candidacy for the General Election: Be Careful What You Wish For

Regardless of whether you prefer Senator Clinton or Senator Obama, if you do not want to see John McCain elected, WATCH OUT. Senator Obama seems willing to give Senator McCain a license to print money to support the Republican's bid for the presidency.

Earlier this month two articles, one a column in the Wall Street Journal, and the other an article filed from Dallas by Reuters puts the Democratic Party on notice that if its nominee does not play by the letter and spirit of Federal Election Commission campaign finance rules, neither will John McCain. The Washington Post has related coverage. Now, Senator Obama's campaign is making it fairly clear that if he is the party's nominee, Senator Obama intends to privately finance his bid for the White House. Senator Clinton has not rejected this option should she become the Democratic nominee, but she is taking a wait-and-see approach.

To opt out of the public funding system in the general election would be an unprecedented choice: no major presidential candidate, from either party, has done so since the 1976 inception of the current Congressionally created system.

In the abstract, the choice between privately funding one’s candidacy versus accepting public funds might legitimately be a close call. But when a Democrat presidential candidate faces a Republican opponent willing to publicly pledge to accept the limits on spending that come with accepting public fund, no Democrat should tempt that Republican to back away from such a pledge.

Here are the basics of the problem from a Democrat's perspective (disregarding one's preferred Democratic presidential nominee): current campaign finance laws try to limit the influence of big money on general elections. Supreme Court rulings disallow direct caps on donations to a candidate in a general election; based on First Amendment free speech principles the Court struck down legislation that would impose such limits directly.

So, Congress adopted another approach. For years, candidates who have qualified have accepted matching funds from the federal government, from the Congressionally established Presidential Election Fund (you may have noticed the option to allocate some of your tax dollars to this fund while preparing your income taxes). According to the legislation, the quid pro quo for accepting matching funds is that a candidate agrees to limit his or her own spending. Thus, individuals may donate as much as they want. But, if a candidate accepts public funds, candidates themselves must self-regulate their spending.

While a far-from-perfect approach to campaign finance law, this was an effort by Congress to make elections a matter of votes, not cash. And the law systematically favors Democratic candidates because Democratic candidates tend not to get the loads of money generated by the Republican fundraising machine. So, if, in the general election, John McCain declines public financing because his opponent does (which Senator McCain might reasonably do, not wanting to subject himself to self-limitation if the other candidate does not), that Republican fundraising machine can put the full force of its effectiveness to work directly for the support of electing Senator McCain to the presidency.

It is, of course, an empirical question whether a Democrat can raise enough money in a general election to sidestep self-limitation without getting mauled by massive funds fueling the Republican's candidacy. But it is not an experiment I would recommend!

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