On our nickel

Posted: May 30, 2004 12:00 AM

In politics, everything is a fight. Take pocketing $75 million of our tax dollars ? the public pay-out to finance the presidential campaigns of John Kerry and George W. Bush. Even this requires intense machinations by the Kerry camp followed by calculated recriminations from the Bush camp.

It may amuse Republicans to see Kerry and the Democrats squirming, but they should remember that in 1996 Bill Clinton used his financial advantage and the cockamamie public financing rules to pulverize Bob Dole with a blizzard of ads to which Dole couldn't respond. Dole had campaigned under public financing rules, which mandated spending caps. His speech was capped, his campaign knee-capped.

The situation is serious enough that Kerry considered not accepting the nomination at the taxpayer-funded Democratic Party Convention in Boston this July. That way he could continue to raise and spend private dollars until September 1, when both President Bush and he will go under the public funding regime.

The problem for Kerry is that once he accepts the $75 million in tax dollars, he will be limited. For more than a month. Meanwhile, Bush can raise and spend unlimited dollars. It also means that Kerry has $75 million to spend over three months, while Bush has $75 million to spend over just two months.

Now Kerry says he will indeed accept the nomination at the convention. But it took pressure: he decided this after NBC hinted that it might pull its very valuable coverage if Kerry wasn't going to actually accept the nomination in Boston.

Politics on the dole

Still, the problem of an uneven playing field remains. Even worse, the presidential public financing system regularly dictates much of the campaigns. The Democrats chose to have their convention much earlier than usual ? late July ? precisely because of the public funding rules. Democrats wanted to avoid running out of funds against the always well-funded sitting president, as happened to Mr. Dole.

How did we get here, where supposedly free campaigns in a supposedly free country are increasingly dictated by rules passed by the political hacks in Congress and enforced through a two-party controlled cabal, the Federal Election Commission?

Public financing certainly isn't needed: there are plenty of private donations. In fact, in this cycle the most serious candidates opted out of the "voluntary" public financing system so they could raise and spend more private money.

Many would argue this means public financing of presidential campaigns must be beefed up. When Howard Dean first opted out, he insisted that we need a much more robust system, providing "qualified candidates with the public funding necessary to wage meaningful and competitive campaigns. . . ."

However, just how much tax money will it take to enable everyone to run a "meaningful and competitive" campaign in such a system? And won't the incumbents in Congress continue to write the rules so that mainstream candidates are subsidized to a much greater degree than, say, Ralph Nader?

What about voters?

But the real loser, as usual, is us, the voting and taxpaying public, who get stilted elections ? and dunned for a contribution to boot.

Taxpayers aren't very fond of the program. Fewer and fewer check the box on their tax forms to send the presidential candidate welfare fund another $3. In 1980, 29 percent of taxpayers checked the form to send tax dollars to the presidential fund. That number has now dropped to only 13 percent.

"While the rate of taxpayer acceptance of the system has been low," a congressional study finds, "the rate of candidate acceptance has been high." Gee whiz, go figure.

Kay J. Maxwell, president of the League of Women Voters, explains the problem with us taxpayers: "Perhaps many taxpayers don't understand how the Fund works. Checking the box will not increase your tax burden or reduce your refund."

Of course, you realize that if this money were going to something with which the League disagreed, they'd be screaming that siphoning off these tax dollars does indeed leave fewer dollars to go toward other programs. Ultimately, it leads to higher taxes.

And it makes you wonder why the League isn't complaining: Increased regulation of campaigns, beginning in 1974, has coincided with increased incumbent re-election rates. These laws are not helping the voters, male or female, that's for sure.

It has gotten so obnoxious that the major parties' lavish conventions are now paid for by hard-working taxpayers ? 13 million bucks for the donkeys and then another 13 mill for the elephants.

Not a shilling for a shindig!

It doesn't have to be this way. At their convention today in Atlanta, delegates of the Libertarian Party will nominate their presidential candidate. Their nominee won't win, that much we know. But their convention and their campaign won't cost me a penny ? or a dime of anyone's taxes. And unlike Ralph Nader, Pat Buchanan, and even the Natural Law Party, the Libertarians refuse to request or accept public funding.

Three cheers. There should be no welfare for politicians. Amongst so many political groups waddling to the trough, it's nice to see at least one group resist the temptation.

The whole point of free elections is for voters to enjoy freedom of choice when choosing which candidate to trust with their vote, or with their money, and for candidates also to have freedom of choice in running their campaigns. (For ideas on how to put freedom back into our over-regulated elections, read my free Common Sense e-letter.)

Campaigns should be run on freely donated private resources, not a system of government subsidy and regulation.