What a waste of hot air. After the finger-pointing and scapegoating, we all know how this is going to end. Both the Democratic and Republican nominees will opt out of public financing in the general election. The candidates can raise more than the $85 million cap, so they're gearing up to grab as much cash as they can -- then blame the other nominee for making them do it. And voters won't blame their party's nominee for choosing special interest money over public money, because winning is everything.
Besides, voters tend to resent special-interest money mainly when it flows to the other party.
Figure that, by 2012, even the pretense of public financing will be gone. A system designed to free candidates from having to go hat in hand to Fat Cats to fund presidential campaigns can't free them from a bondage they willingly assume. And the momentum is with More Money.
In 1996, gazillionaire Steve Forbes opted out of public financing in order to evade the system's strict spending limits in the primary. In 2000, Forbes and George W. Bush, a fundraising ace, sat out the primary. In 2004, Bush, John Kerry and Howard Dean said no to primary public financing funds. By 2008, Clinton and Obama opted out. In the GOP, Mitt Romney, who -- I'll throw this in just because it's an interesting item -- spent $167,000 of his own money for each of his 253 delegates, according to the Boston Globe, bypassed public financing. Ditto Rudy Giuliani. John Edwards and John McCain both signed on for public financing funds -- although apparently McCain was simply sticking a toe in the water. Other candidates -- Joe Biden, Chris Dodd, Tom Tancredo -- took public financing, which only reinforces the perception that public financing is for losers. And you know what? It doesn't matter that public financing is fading away, because there is no law that can keep Big Money out of presidential politics. When Washington passed campaign contribution limits -- the law now limits each person from giving more than $4,600 to any candidate for the primary and general election -- big donors started writing big checks to the parties. The McCain-Feingold campaign reform act limited soft money (big checks) to parties; the money flowed to 527 campaigns. You can't stop it. It's like water working its way downhill. Or aging. So when Washington passes laws to limit where big money goes, the new laws only end up making it harder for voters to know where the big money went.
Washington would do better gutting these do-gooder laws that can't deliver. But the urge to promise the public the illusion of reform runs deep.
In a 2004 interview in his Senate office, I asked McCain what it would take for him to realize that McCain-Feingold didn't block big money, but simply diverted its flow to less visible and less accountable interests.
McCain countered, "The problem is the 527s, but that's not a problem with the law. That's the problem with the Federal Election Commission." No doubt, FEC staffers now are enjoying watching McCain pushing for the FEC to cut him some slack.