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One of the most important developments in the history of political campaigning happened late last week, and (almost) nobody noticed.

“What?” you ask. “Of course everyone noticed! Are you kidding? The first woman and the first African-American with serious shots at winning a major party nomination announced last week! You’d have to be living under a rock not to know that, just shut up about Barack and Hillary and glass ceilings already, and let me go back to [insert personal activity of choice here: flossing my teeth, procrastinating at Midnight Mug, liberating silverware from Leo’s, etc.] in peace!”

While Senators Obama and Clinton have indeed walked into the history books with their groundbreaking campaigns, that’s not what I’m talking about.

What I’m talking about is Hillary Clinton’s decision to forgo federal matching funding in both the nominating and general election campaigns. While many candidates have opted out of public financing for primary campaigns before, Sen. Clinton is the first to declare that she is capable of raising more than the $150 million that would be provided to her under the federal program for the 2008 primary and general campaign elections. Sen. Clinton’s decision to ask donors for a maximum donation of $4200 at this point in her campaign—rather than the $2100 maximum donation she would receive were she to accept federal matching funds in the general election—will set off a chain reaction among her opponents, making prospects difficult for candidates who aren’t capable of raising such huge sums on their own.

The federal matching funds program, introduced in 1976, works as follows:
-Any primary candidate who raises at least $100,000 in personal donations receives federal money to match the first $250 of each donation. For 2008, candidates could received matching grants of as much as $25 million for the primary season and about $15 million for a nomination convention.
-In the 2008 cycle, general election candidates could received up $83 million.

However, with Sen. Clinton’s decision to decline federal matching funds (with opponents expected to follow suit, although opponents including Sen. Obama declined to comment on any similar decision), analysts are expecting the two candidates who make it to the general election to raise more $500 million each—meaning a presidential campaign that will end up costing more than a billion dollars come November 2008.

Already, the New York Times is reporting that John McCain has begun to solicit private donations for both the primary and general elections, with the option of returning them. Sen. McCain, who has long been a proponent of campaign finance reform, removed his name as a co-sponsor of a bill to expand the presidential public financing program.

If the two frontrunners for their parties’ nominations—Clinton and McCain—do indeed make it Election Day 2008, we can say good-bye to the days of public financing. Candidates these days spend as much time fundraising as they do campaigning. This is positively absurd—do you think of any other position where you spend more to get the job than you make once you have it? Though the Supreme Court struck down spending caps on campaigns as an unconstitutional abridgment of your right to free speech, it is time to consider new alternatives for a broken system. What about lowering the donation threshold from, say, $2100, to $500? This would greatly increase the ability of your average Joe to participate as fully in the political process as his wealthier fellow citizens, and for all the ado that was made about Howard Dean’s ability to fundraise using small donations through the internet, the reality is that the majority of campaign funding still comes from influential donors who have as many votes as the rest of us do—one—but exercise outsize influence on democratic process. While I am by no means a proponent of full federal financing for all campaigns (the taxpayers shouldn’t have to foot the bill for vanity campaigns of candidates like the Rev. Al Sharpton), there must be a solution here. Our Founding Fathers—who considered it embarrassing to personally campaign for the presidency, let alone raise money for advertising—would be aghast at the feeding trough our presidential electoral system has become. Something must be done before this system gets even more out of hand—I want my vote to count just as much as anyone else’s, don’t you?


Chris Dodge said...

you're spot on and declaring this so early on in the campaign makes it all the worse, as every other legitimate candidate will be forced to follow suit. So long as public campaign financing is optional, it will never be viable for any legitimate candidate, because it is very possible to raise considerably more by foregoing it. While Hillary doing it pisses me off, McCain doing it is even worse, hypocritical in the extreme.