Taxpayer financing of elections an idea long past its prime

Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama, looking more and more like the presumptive nominees of their respective parties for the presidency, are engaged in a rather arcane discussion about whether they will honor an agreement made almost a year ago to accept only “public” financing of their general election campaigns.

This would be a good time for both of them to admit that taxpayer financing of presidential campaigns wasn’t all that hot an idea to begin with and has been preempted by the ability of candidates to raise significant (perhaps incredible) sums of money through the Internet.

Here’s the simplified version. Last May the New York Times reported the two senators had pledged that if they were the nominees they would agree to accept only public (i.e. taxpayer-financed) money for their general-election campaigns, which would mean they would be limited to spending $85 million each and would have to return any donations collected for the general-election campaign.

At the time both candidates were long shots, but now they look — McCain especially — like likely nominees.

During the Wisconsin campaign, McCain challenged Obama to live up to that pledge, while Obama said it was premature to talk about it until he had clinched the nomination.

If they held to the pledge, the advantage would probably accrue to McCain, since Obama has proven more able to raise huge sums ($36 million in January alone), largely through the Internet.

If they limited themselves to money extracted from taxpayers, the efforts of party national committees, 527s and other “independent” groups would become increasingly important (remember the Swift Boat ads in 2004).

There is an issue of whether a promise is a promise here, but the flap highlights the false promise of taxpayer financing of political campaigns.

The idea was to assure they were “clean” and untainted by special-interest money. We’ve never understood why money taken by force from taxpayers was “cleaner” or more “moral” than voluntary contributions from private citizens, but leave that to one side for now.

This election cycle has proven that candidates who stir genuine grassroots enthusiasm — mainly Obama and Rep. Ron Paul on the Republican side — are able to raise large amounts from small contributions through the Internet.

Isn’t that kind of fundraising a better measure of civic participation than accepting money extracted by force?

With Internet fundraising a proven mechanism capable of trumping special-interest money, the idea of taxpayer financing of a general election is an idea whose time has come and gone. Let’s just dump it.