Archive for June 21st, 2008

End public campaign financing

Barack Obama’s decision to forego public financing of his campaign, the first time this has been done since Watergate, is not only rational, but indicative of a change in politics which requires people to rethink their approach to the issue of campaign financing.

The traditional view has been this: when campaigns are funded by private funds, the emphasis gets put on special interest groups, big business, and those who can afford to contribute. Whoever has the cash advantage wins, and that’s usually the person most under the spell of ‘big money.’ This also leads to such severe competition for campaign funds that candidates spend an inordinate amount of time rising money, and then spend massive amounts on campaigns in order to win. A solution — one used in many European countries — is to limit the length of the election campaign and require public funding. That creates a level playing field, and moves to make sure that candidates are less beholden to special interests.

That argument is obsolete and was very difficult to maintain in the US anyway. Despite a public financing provision, candidates needed private funds in the primary season, could use private funds up until the convention (meaning whoever had their convention last had a potential advantage — the other side had to use just public funds for a month longer), and the private money still flowed. It flowed not to the candidates, but to special interest groups with no connection to the campaigns, engaged in nefarious activity, the most vile being that of the ‘swiftboaters’ against John Kerry.

The candidate, of course, could remain aloof from this. He could condemn (with a wink on the side) such tactics, and truthfully point out that he did not engage in such smears. The result of public financing wasn’t to push out the private donors, but to allow a separate private campaign where ‘anything goes,’ for which the candidate being supported carried no responsibility. Efforts to limit this kind of activity run into the first amendment. No matter how damaging this might be to having good election campaigns, we do have the right to free speech. You start messing with that and it creates a precedent that might be used to justify further limitations on speech, creating a slippery slope through which the first amendment is weakened. That argument is also valid in dealing with issues like the Patriot Act.

The Obama campaign’s ability to raise funds through the internet and from small donors shows that raising money does not require one to focus on those with deep pockets. Most people believe it was a tactical error of Hillary Clinton to go the usual route. Not every candidate will be able to do it as successfully as Obama, but he showed how the process works: organize, create a message that is persuasive (and if you go to Obama’s website, it’s got very detailed positions and plans — agree or disagree with him, it’s not just empty rhetoric) and the money will come in.

This year it benefits the Democrats because a mix of a bad economy and an extremely unpopular war (or as I prefer, an unpopular big government social engineering experiment to try to reshape Iraq’s political culture) means that Obama’s message of change has vast and profound appeal. How else could it be that a black man with a foreign sounding name is leading in all the polls, and was able to derail the most potent political machine today? Next time it could be the GOP’s turn to have the popular message.

To be sure, there are problems with this. I refuse to give to any political campaign myself (with very limited exceptions) because there are children suffering around the world who need the money far more than any political campaign. What if all the money we spend on elections was spent elsewhere? But a counter argument to that would be that if you get the right people in power, some of the hundreds of billions spent in Iraq might be used for a better purpose. If you find that convincing, then a donation to a political campaign is actually quite rational.

Moreover, the Obama campaign is setting a good precedent: don’t accept donations from lobbyists and other influence peddlers. If this can become standard practice, that might clean up the process a bit. He also has actively attempted to shift money away from the PACs that are usually doing the private sector shadow campaigns. This means that most of the money will go through his campaign, and thus he will have to take responsibility for most of the message that comes out. If this means putting a knife into the swift boat style smear jobs, that’s very good news.

The case shouldn’t be overstated. Smears and rumors have been part of American politics since our Republic began, and there is still ample opportunity for the ethically challenged to continue that ‘tradition.’ And in a country this rich and powerful, those with the most money will always have better access to power; the elites will be able to continue to assure themselves a privileged position, that fundamental weakness of modern democracy can’t be removed by simply changing how campaigns are financed.

Still, it’s time to recognize that the information revolution has made local organizing more effective, and has to some extent empowered even those who can only make small contributions. One can hope this is part of a trend, one I alluded to in Rethinking the EU, whereby new media and new technology help bring power from the center to the periphery, with profound change driven by the public rather than just the elites. After all, the Berlin wall came down not primarily because of Reagan and Gorbachev, but the East German people taking a stand. Perhaps the Obama campaign is yet another sign of a fundamental change in the nature of politics.

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