Everyone’s all abuzz about Obama eschewing public campaign financing because his own fundraising abilities should exceed the $84.1 million he’d be limited to by accepting public campaign finance. The Chronicle’s conservative columnist Debra J. Saunders, like just about every other conservative out there, excoriates him for this decision in today’s column.
Perhaps I’m naive, but I don’t see what the big deal is. I realize that public financing is intended to limit the kinds of favors-driven financing that haunts most political campaigns, but it is a wildly imperfect system. The existence of so-called 527s – political organizations not tied to a particular campaign, but with the ability to stump for a particular candidate – all but makes the public financing system purely symbolic. It’s rather nice in theory that McCain has committed to sticking with public financing, but it won’t stop McCain supporters from using 527s to attack Obama without recourse. Remember John Kerry and the “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth“? Tell me Karl Rove wasn’t directly involved in that.
Even without the existence of 527s, I tend to think public financing is a lousy idea. The money comes from that extra $3 you voluntarily send off with your tax return to help finance presidential campaigns. I never check that box – I think they should finance their own campaign, and I voice that opinion by not contributing to that fund.
And that’s ultimately why I’m against the idea of public financing. As Americans living in a capitalist society, we often speak with our money. If we don’t support what a company is doing with their business, we simply don’t patronize them. And if we don’t support a candidate, we certainly won’t contribute to their campaign. On the flip side, if we love a business, we become loyal customers. Likewise, if we love a candidate or a cause or what have you, we freely send off our checks.
If a candidate can not build the kind of loyal support that a well-financed campaign represents, that’s tough luck. I do vote with my dollars and don’t think there needs to be an even playing field for campaign spending – if one candidate has a stronger war chest than another, that indicates to me that they either have a lot of loyalists willing to donate to their campaign or have a number of powerful, wealthy allies.
This is a very Republican point of view, I realize, in large part because Republicans are traditionally more business friendly and, therefore, get a lot more wealthy donors. If that’s the case and the Democrats are concerned about not having that money, they clearly need to spend more time appealing to those businesses and listening to their needs. Or, they can do what Obama has done and inspire millions so much that they become campaign contributors. And, yes, this method of financing is fraught with potential for fraud – the old money-for-favors thing. Any reformation of campaign finance rules must allow for complete and total openness of campaign finances. Every cumulative donation over, say, $20 must be reported and kept in a publicly accessible file so that anyone can verify the donors. Note I said “cumulative”. If I give Obama $19 every week, by the second week my total contributions should be on that list and maintained as I give him more of my money.
This information should be digitized and made freely available in an online database in plain text so that it’s easy to search. Donors concerned about having their privacy violated simply should not donate – you must understand that by giving money you implicitly allow your full name, city and state to be posted publicly along side the total amount you gave.
A system such as this already exists, and it is possible to search through it, but the minimum reporting amount is rather high and there are all kinds of ways to skirt around the limits. Campaign finance reform should focus less on limiting contributions from the public – let the voters speak with their wallets – and more on making the entire process far more transparent. After all, not everyone disagrees with the favors for votes mentality. If the winds of society shift in a manner that such a system becomes acceptable, the government shouldn’t necessarily hold that back. It is the responsibility of the people and – more importantly – the press to keep these candidates honest. Laws making this difficult are counter productive to a genuinely democratic society. So, instead of carping about raising funds outside the governmentally-provided system, John McCain – Mr. Campaign Reform himself – should put more of his energy into making information about contributions accessible to the public. Otherwise, what does he have to hide?