Problems With Public Financing

Over at TAP, Bruce Ackerman and Ian Aryes have a pretty good piece about fixing public finance, but one that, like most public financing advocates, completely misses the point. It comes down to the premise that Obama’s example is unlikely to be copied, which is probably right, and then springboards to this, the core of their plan:

But Obama’s success does show that ordinary Americans want a system that places them at the very center of campaign finance. For more than a decade, we have been working with many other scholars and activists to develop just such a paradigm. Under our proposal, Congress would provide each voter with a special credit-card account containing up to 50 “patriot dollars” that they could spend only on federal election campaigns.

Armed with their cards, voters could send their patriot dollars to favored candidates and political organizations at times of their own choosing. They would also be free to give private money, subject to the limitations of the McCain-Feingold Law. But patriotic finance would push the system much closer to the ideal of equal citizenship that prevails on Election Day, when each of us casts an equal ballot regardless of our private wealth.

About 120 million Americans went to the polls in 2004. If they also had a chance to vote with patriot dollars, they would have injected $6 billion of federal funds into the campaign — greatly diluting the $3 billion of private contributions spent by all candidates for federal office during that election. That would be a small price to pay to democratize the system.

The first problem here is that it’s unrealistic in its conclusion. Such a system is not going to lend itself to raising $6 billion, because 120 million people aren’t going to donate. We’re amazed that Obama has just north of 1.5 million donors.

Outside of that, we have the problem of allocating the funds, particularly in a primary. Do we dilute the system by handing out money equally? That is, do Dennis Kucinich and Mike Gravel get as much money as Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama? That’s not really “fair,” in so much as it hurts the “real” candidates in the race. And if not, when do we start figuring out how much to give, and how? Polls? What do you do about the fact that early summer polls before primary season almost always trend to the most nationally known figures (Hillary Clinton’s 30% lead, Giuliani leading the Republican field)?

And finally, as I’ve said before, there’s still the issue of spending caps, which make it both a flawed system that doesn’t fit reality and completely unlikely to be taken seriously by major candidates. Come up with an effective plan to offset the cost of running (free airtime, relaxed caps for spending on organization, etc.) and we’ll talk. There’s also the fact that it’s counter-intuitive. Public financing advocates are so concerned with where the money comes from, they forget what it’s used for; getting your message to voters. Unrealistic limits on how much money a candidate can spend on ads and organization is going to limit the playing field, effectively shutting voters out of the conversation in some areas. That hardly seems like a model of inclusive, democratic, reform to me.