Monday, January 22, 2007

Clinton Campaign Will Break Public Finance System

This morning's Los Angeles Times reports that Hillary Clinton expects to forego public campaign financing in both the primaries and the general election, a move that could bring about the end of the public funding regime that's been in place since the Watergate era. Clinton's campaign website is asking for donations for both the primary and the general elections, and her operation is expected to easily raise more than the $83 million allocated by the FEC for the major party nominees:

Abandonment of the public financing system would threaten the survival of a Watergate-era measure that was supposed to limit the influence of big donors in presidential politics and enable more candidates to compete.

If major candidates walk away from public financing, "it really calls into question why it exists at all," said Federal Election Commission Chairman Robert D. Lenhard, a supporter of the system.

The system is being rendered obsolete by escalating campaign costs, sophisticated fundraising techniques, tepid public support and major candidates such as Clinton who could raise $100 million on their own before the first 2008 primary — and $500 million by election day.

There are efforts to revive the system. "It is a reversal, but not necessarily a fatal reversal," said Steven Weissman of the nonpartisan Campaign Finance Institute in Washington, among the groups pushing to rescue public financing.

But it remains to be seen whether the heavy spending forecast for 2008 will, as public-finance advocates predict, trigger public disgust and lead to changes.

Until then, "to be considered a top-tier serious candidate almost by definition means you're not going to be participating in the public financing system" in either the primary or general election campaigns, said Democratic consultant Chris Lehane of San Francisco, who worked in the Clinton White House.

As originally envisioned, the matching funds system offered candidates a deal: In exchange for voluntarily limiting their spending, the federal government would provide them with tax money to defray primary campaign costs and relieve them of having to raise money in the general election.

Taxpayers pay for it by checking a box on their income tax forms earmarking $3. But despite outcries against the influence of private money in politics, the concept has not caught on with the public. At its height in 1980, 28% of taxpayers marked the box. Now, not even 10% ask that part of their taxes be used for presidential campaigns.

It's a system that seems almost quaint in an age of Internet fundraising and in the face of other laws that have the effect of opening the way for big campaign spending. Though $83 million seems huge, it might pale by comparison with the sums that candidates could raise from private sources — increasing the likelihood that nominees would leave the public money on the table.

"It is mind-boggling," said Washington political consultant Jeffrey Bell, a Republican who supports public financing.
The notion behind public financing is that with taxpayer financed elections, candidates would be beholden to the general public and not the "special interests." But as the article notes, public funding has never really taken off, and the number of people who authorize contributions the presidential campaign fund has declined steadily over the years. It's also interesing that the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform legislation of 2002 -- which sought to reduce the role of money in campaigns by banning "soft money" contribution to the national parties -- is likely the major factor working to kill off public financing of elections in the U.S.

I posted on presidential campaign finance in December,
discussing the jockeying on the Republican side to determine who will be heir to the Bush family political machine's massive fundraising network. In that post I noted that Hillary Clinton's campaign has raised the stakes for 2008, with a likely $100 entry fee the requirement for top-tier candidates. That number looks small when compared to the $500 million Clinton will likely raise for the general election in 2008. Mind-boggling, indeed!

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