T he announcement that Democratic presiden-
tial candidate John Kerry, following in the
footsteps of front-runner Howard Dean, will give up taxpayer financing of his campaign in favor of private (or family) contributions might just mark the beginning of the end of the system of “public” funding of presidential campaigns.
Taxpayers, and those with a hankering for an occasional semblance of honesty in the game of politics, should be pleased. The system of subsidizing presidential candidates, which despite occasional anomalies also reinforced the position of the two entrenched political parties, was never a good idea. It failed utterly to deliver on the promises made on its behalf.
Those with long memories will recall that public financing of presidential candidates was sold as a way of curing the ills of corruption and dishonesty that culminated in the Watergate scandal and Richard Nixon’s resignation in 1974.
Public funding was supposed to reduce corruption, restore faith in government, foster electoral competition, and encourage citizen participation in a process that had supposedly been taken over by big money.
It has accomplished none of those goals. In some ways it has reduced competitiveness and citizen participation. And it hasn’t notably increased faith in government.
The lesson: Don’t confuse the appealing goals of a proposal with actual results.
The problem with public financing, from the perspectives of Dean and Kerry, is that it has an upper limit. President Bush decided not to take taxpayer money in 2000, and has announced that he won’t take it this year, since he can raise more through private contributions.
A Democrat reliant on taxpayers’ money, then, would be at a disadvantage. Dean has shown the ability, in part through imaginative use of the Internet, to raise lots of money in the form of small contributions. Kerry has substantial wealth. Both will benefit by getting off the dole. They could shame other candidates into doing likewise.
Public financing was supposed to “level the playing field” for independent challengers, but the two most successful independent candidates of recent times — George Wallace and H. Ross Perot — succeeded without taxpayers’ money. Taxpayers’ money has instead been funneled to marginal candidates who have been unable to spark much support from the general public, even with subsidies.
After this election, Congress should revisit campaign finance and start afresh. Requiring full and immediate disclosure of donations is desirable — and more practical now than in 1974 — but donation limits, spending limits and public financing should be junked.
The political process, after all, is theoretically the way the people control the government. To have it tightly regulated and subsidized by the government was always a perversion of the democratic process.