02/22/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Obama's Lesson on Campaign Finance

Goo goos who worry about the way money corrupts our politics might want to use part of the Obama honeymoon to revise and refine their arguments. What's the lesson to be learned when the candidate who rejects public financing -- designed to level the playing field and is thus able to far outspend the competition -- wins?

No one seems terribly worried about that at the moment and I'm not either.

Some claim that Obama has broken the system and thus has a responsibility to quickly fix it, but I'm not among them. Why should he see a system that worked this well for him as broken? Why should the voters? And what type of fix would result in a fairer outcome?

I find it interesting that Republicans now licking their wounds and planning a comeback have not fixed on this issue or claimed that they were denied a victory that should have been theirs by the avalanche of political money that flowed to the Obama campaign. That's an encouraging sign.

The most basic flaw of the public finance argument has always been the assumption that the link between money and popularity began with the former. In their fantasies, Americans would elect a clown or Klansman president if there was enough money behind the candidacy. But history suggests otherwise.

In fact, the candidate with the most money is often pushed out of the race earlier, as former Sen. Phil Gramm can attest.

There's a stronger argument to be made that public popularity brings in the money, which is apparently what happened in the 2004 race. And what's wrong with that? If you don't initially have enough friends who care enough to donate their time or money to help elect you, it is extremely unlikely that you'll later have enough friends to vote you into office.

That's why it is a mistake to think that money can elect a candidate who defies his constituents on issues they care about ranging from foreign policy, to immigration or abortion. The search for incumbents who are out of step with their constituents is a challenging one, partly because they are so quickly retired (and partly because of the way redistricting is done, which often creates more problems than political contributions).

Money can have a worrisome impact on new or technically arcane issues where the public has little awareness or reason to care. The telecommunications reform debate, where there was little public interest detectable, was fueled it. In the weeks ahead, we'll probably see it surface as Congress debates which sectors of the financial services communities are most worthy (yet another battlefield in the long-running war between banks and credit unions, for instance).

In areas where the policy choice appears to be a coin toss and legislators hear nothing from their constituents (or nothing beyond the Astroturf campaigns that crudely imitate grassroots efforts), there's a tendency to go with the guys who seem most helpful.

But that's an arena far from presidential campaigns and one unlikely to be impacted by any rewrite of our campaign finance laws.