26 January 2011

Presidential hypocrisy on public funding?

In 2008 Senator Barack Obama opted out of the voluntary public-funding program for presidential candidates. In place since the 1970s, and used by Senator McCain during the same campaign, the program rewards candidates for setting limits on the contributions they receive from individual donors by granting them matching funds once they reach a threshold of funds raised. The matching funds come from taxpayers checking off that little box on their return forms, three dollars at a time.

Perhaps frustrated with McCain's self-righteous naivete, and definitely provoked by Obama's success in fundraising outside the system, Republicans have decided that the public-funding system is obsolete. Nearly two years ago, Rep. Cole of Oklahoma introduced legislation abolishing public funding. Now, with his fellow Republicans in control of the House of Representatives, Cole's bill seems likely to advance to the Senate, where its fate is less certain. President Obama opposes the bill.

Lest the President be accused of hypocrisy, Democratic defenders of public funding contend that Candidate Obama promised while doing without it that, upon his election, he would work to modernize the system to improve its incentives. Predictably, Democrats warn that doing away with public funding will only increase the influence of corporations on elections, while Rep. Cole observes that Obama's own example should refute such worries -- though more progressive Democrats may not agree with that evidence.

While Cole promotes his bill as a deficit-cutting measure, there's a certain unsavoriness to his arguments, particularly his dismissal of the public-funding concept as a way to "prop up the candidacies of long shot presidential hopefuls." The implication here is that the money primary, if you will, is the real test of a candidate's viability, and anyone who loses the money primary is unworthy of public subsidy. Further back of Cole's stance, I suspect, is a longstanding hostility on the right to the idea of anyone having to subsidize opinions with which they don't agree. That comes through in opposition to political lobbying by unions, and I've seen some progressives adopt the idea by advocating that political spending by corporations should be subject to shareholder votes. I'm not the biggest fan of public funding myself; in my view it dodges the real problem, which is corporate media's power to impose a toll on political speech. But I do believe that there's a public interest that transcends individual partisanship in a level playing field for elections. To make elections as fair as possible, the object should not be to make it easier for everyone to raise money, but to make everyone less dependent on money and less obliged to spend the people's time raising it. As long as neither side in the present debate addresses or alleviates the causes of dependence, neither side is worth supporting.

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