WASHINGTON -- John McCain's undeclared but ubiquitous presidential campaign will produce a delicious moment when he announces, as he surely will, that he will not participate in the public funding system for presidential primaries. And if he is nominated, he and his Democratic opponent probably will be the first nominees since 1972 to rely on private money in the general election campaign.
There are two compounded ironies. First, the mantra of campaign ``reformers'' is that there is ``too much'' money in politics. But McCain will shun public funding because it provides too little money. He can raise much more from private interests. (But not from ``special interests,'' which are interests McCain disapproves of.) Second, the reformers revere the McCain-Feingold legislation that expanded government regulation of the quantity, timing and content of political speech. But McCain-Feingold is one important reason why the public funding system is collapsing.
That legislation banned large contributions of ``soft money'' -- money that can be used for party-building and other activities but not for specific candidates' campaigns. It also doubled from $1,000 to $2,000, and indexed for inflation, the size of contributions of ``hard dollars'' that candidates can receive. This doubling made it even easier than it already was to raise more money than the public funding system could provide to presidential candidates, even if the public were fully funding the system. Which the public emphatically refuses to do.
Candidates accepting government subsidies in the primaries can spend only stipulated sums in particular states: Our amazing government knows precisely the right amount for each state, and knows that the same sum will be suitable for all candidates' campaign needs. In 2004, candidates accepting taxpayer subsidies were restricted to spending a total of just $45 million in all the caucuses and primaries and the rest of the pre-convention period. George W. Bush's and John Kerry's campaigns, spurning the subsidies, each spent more than five times that amount before the conventions.
Taxpayer financing of presidential campaigns, an entitlement program for the political class, was enacted in 1974 as that class' response to Watergate. Taxpayers were given the power to direct, by a checkoff on their income tax form, $1 of their tax bill to the fund.
Why does the political class use this sneaky approach rather than a straightforward appropriation for itself? The question answers itself.