Wednesday, February 13, 2008

McCain and the Presidential Public Financing System

The Wall Street Journal's Best of the Web Today (from yesterday) discusses the Presidential public financing system (and links to my post from 2007) and the fact that John McCain will forgo the public matching funds. The move is not all that surprising in terms of funding his campaign since his Democratic opponent, whether Obama or Clinton, will surely forgo public funding and the limits on spending that come with the public funds.

But with McCain deciding to skip public funds, and he is one of the most vocal, and most ironic, proponents of campaign finance reform and there are certain questions about the "hypocrisy" of a campaign finance reformer deciding to use private funding for his presidential campaign.

But so far as I know, McCain has never advocated for full public funding. He has never advocated against as far as I know either. Rather, McCain's beef has always been what he sees as the corrupting influence of soft money, that is unregulated contributions to the political parties from corporations and unions (pejoratively termed special interests). In that regard, McCain Feingold banned such contributions to the national parties (they had been banned from giving directly to candidates since the early 1900's).

But we can talk about the Presidential public funding mechanism, but in my view it is largely a dead beast. As I said last year:
We are still left with two facts--1) the cost of campaigning has gone up-significantly, since the creation of the program; and 2) fewer Americans are checking the box on their tax forms, leading to fewer resources to be given to candidates.

Mr. Dunkerly also notes that 28 states (and I will accept his count although I am pretty sure it is an overstatement) have a public funding mechanism. But those states, assuming the count is accurate, are not the big states, with the most expensive media markets. New York, California, Florida, Texas and Illinois do not have a public funding program on a statewide scale. Which brings us back to fact 1 from above--the cost of campaigning has outstripped the reach of a public system. Were a public funding system put in place one of two things would happen--the cost of campaigning would continue to skyrocket since there is essentially no market mechanism--that is the difficulty of raising funds for a campaign, to check the costs of the media market. This would of course lead to the demand for greater public funding, continuing the spiral. The second scenario would lead to getting the Federal Communications Commission involved in setting prices for political advertising. Advertising costs on TV and radio are driven by market forces and if the FCC starts altering that, the blow back from the radio and TV community is likely to result in a regulatory war that we would just as soon avoid.

But even assuming the presidential funding system can be effectively reformed, we are left with the question of whether it should be reformed. How a campaign is funded is not the pivotal question in our electoral system, but rather whether or not the candidates we are presented with should be entrusted with the office they seek. A fully funded candidate with a bad message, bad leadership skills and bad policies will not win and will even lose to candidates with less money but more appeal to voters.

In the end, even though money matters in elections, on election day the only thing that matters is the voters and their beliefs and thoughts--not the beliefs and thoughts of the moneymen.
Coverage of the money "war" is an easy path to take for the media since it allows for an easy comparison, or rather allows for an easier comparison. At the presidential level, the comparison though is a bit false. Yes, a canddiate needs money to compete, but that is not all they need and when it comes down to the final two major party candidates, the money factor is less and less important than message and appeal.

While I don't like John McCain's policies on campaign finance reform, it is not hypocritical of the man to forgo public funding. He has never championed the public system and it seems rediculous to criticize the man on this issue when there many other policy areas with more fodder than this one.

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