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Political Reality Outpaces Campaign Finance Laws

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As the political winds of the 2008 presidential election appear to blow toward the direction of much-needed change, it sadly appears that we will be unmercifully dependent upon the status quo to blaze the trail. Thus, many experts predict that the 2007 early bird registration fee to run for president will be roughly $100 million in order to be perceived as viable in 2008.

"I think we're gonna see multiple candidates raising $100 million this year alone," Federal Election Commissioner Michael Toner recently told National Public Radio.

Perhaps more concerning was Toner's following prediction: "I continue to believe that the nominees of the two major parties will end up raising $500 million apiece in this 2008 race, so it's going to be the first billion-dollar election."

The antiquated presidential public financing system, passed in 1974, was never updated to keep pace with the shifting nature of campaigning, escalating media costs, the explosion of the internet, along with states such as California that wish to front-load the presidential primaries, adding to the need for exorbitant fundraising.

In launching her bid to become the first female president, New York Senator Hilary Rodham Clinton became first candidate since 1976 to forgo public financing for both the primary and general elections due to the spending limits that accompany the federal matching funds. Senator Clinton is confident she can raise far more than the paltry $150 million the federal system would provide.

Senator Clinton's decision to eschew the federal system has significantly upped the ante for the remaining cadre of Democratic presidential candidates. What specifically does her decision mean for Illinois Senator Barack Obama?

In announcing his presidential exploratory committee by video on his Web site, Obama stated Americans are hungry for a new kind of political debate. "Politics has become so bitter and partisan, so gummed up by money and influence, that we can't tackle the big problems that demand solutions. And that's what we have to change first."

That sounds nice, but the present political climate suggests Obama will have to dive head first into the gummed up cesspool of dialing for dollars so that he can compete. Which means he will be forced in all likelihood to utilize the seldom successful, but often stated philosophy of embracing the current system so he can ultimately transform it.

I am not criticizing Obama, but if he moves closer to the Clinton playbook, it robs him of one of his greatest strengths in that he is a breath of fresh air in the midst of the stale stench of politics as usual.

But this represents the dilemma for all, regardless of party, who wish to mount a serious campaign for president -- either step outside the federal system or be confined by it.

My political cynicism also informs me there is a short cutoff point between campaign contributions being based on benevolence and a belief in the candidate's vision and becoming more about expecting something in return. Moreover, it is the latter rather than the former that allows a candidate to bypass the current federal system.

It is clearly too late to make any changes for the 2008 election, but there is plenty of time to have campaign finance reform that the reflects today's reality in place by 2010.

While political reality may have outpaced the existing federal system, the need for a bold vision to lead the country out of war, provide health care, and make us less dependent on foreign oil may be hamstrung by those same fundraising necessities.

Byron Williams is an Oakland pastor and syndicated columnist. E-mail him at byron@byronspeaks.com or leave a message at (510) 208-6417.

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