12/28/2007 01:47 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

John Edwards' Money Problems

John Edwards, more than any other Democratic presidential candidate, has had a lifelong checkered relationship with money. Regardless of what you think about his past financial indiscretions (the haircut, the hedge fund, the house), by supporting Edwards' candidacy, Democratic voters are coming dangerously close to putting themselves at a distinct disadvantage against the Republican nominee. In September 2007, when Edwards made the decision to accept public financing, the upshot was not so much to deemphasize the role of money in electoral politics (though that might have been his stated reason), but rather to underline just how vital money would be for Edwards should he become the party's nominee. Yet Edwards' stance against 527s (the soft money organizations which can spend freely and without caps) is at odds with the reality that because he has embraced public financing, he will need every monetary advantage available to him.

Over the past few days, Barack Obama and John Edwards have engaged in a mini war of words over greenbacks. This latest (corn-fed Iowa) beef can be summarized thusly: Edwards has a history of decrying 527s, yet is being supported by one in Iowa (the Alliance for a New America, run by former a Edwards adviser and a local of the Service Employees International Union), and Obama has seized upon this apparent hypocrisy to score some pre-caucus points.

These 527s are free to lavish their funds on the political landscape as long as they don't "coordinate" directly with a candidate. Edwards and his campaign have maintained that "527s should have no role in the political process," yet a newly disclosed email indicates that there may have been some of that taboo "coordination" between Edwards' campaign and the S.E.I.U.'s 527. That internal S.E.I.U. email states that the 527 should prepare to roll out endorsements in a "coordinated [oops!] press strategy with the Edwards campaign," and to "discuss with the Edwards campaign what specific sort of support they'd like to see from us...." The Edwards campaign has since denied any improper ties to the group.

Regardless of how you come out over this latest issue, what's clear is that John Edwards has perhaps the most tortured relationship with the Almighty Dollar of any Democratic candidate. Any write-up of his life and candidacy inevitably chronicles his rise from son of a mill worker to successful trial lawyer, to advocate for the impoverished in the post-Katrina South, to consultant for a hedge fund that invested in subprime mortgages, to new owner of a 28,000 square-foot home, to recipient of an unfortunately expensive coiffure. Yet he's the anti-money man, right?

What's gone overlooked in the recent discussion of Edwards' relationship with and attitude toward 527s is that in late September 2007, Edwards elected (although given his fundraising gap with Hillary Clinton and Obama, it may not have been much of a choice) to receive federal matching funds. Doing so provided his campaign with an infusion of much-needed cash, but over the long haul, Edwards would have less money to spend on (or at least more fiscal restraints for) an election bid than a Republican who has not sought public financing. All this makes Edwards' vehement anti-soft money position all the more ridiculous. In an election cycle when all indicators point toward the likelihood of a Democrat winning the presidency, why would a campaign wish to make things any harder by first capping their ability to spend and then rejecting the financial assistance of likeminded 527s? (Sigh). Mike Bloomberg and his deep pockets must be salivating at the mere idea.

And interestingly, that pro-Edwards S.E.I.U. strategy email was dated October 8, 2007, just a few days after Edwards announced that he would seek public financing for his campaign. Regardless of whether it was an express or tacit recognition by Edwards' backers that he'd need all the financial help he could get, of which 527s would have to be a part, it underscores the fact that outside fundraisers would have a large role to play in the future of an Edwards campaign.

While Edwards now condemns the role of money in the process, his campaign director, Joe Trippi sang a distinctly different tune as director of Howard Dean's 2003/04 campaign: "any Democratic campaign that opted into the matching-funds system has given up on the general election . . . . There is absolutely no way you can sustain the hits that are going to come from now until August with [that spending] limit." What a difference a few years and empty coffers make.

There are many restrictions placed upon a candidate by accepting matching funds, not the least of which is that he or she may not raise money for the general election or spend on the general election until that party's nominating convention, which doesn't begin until August 25, 2008. The Democratic Party could raise and spend money ostensibly on Edwards' behalf (without coordinating with the campaign), but that would divert money and attention away from the congressional races for which the Democratic Party has opened up a large fundraising advantage against Republicans. And financial help from the national party did little to help an impecunious Dole campaign in 1996.

To be sure, Obama himself has woven a somewhat tortured web of anti-soft money rhetoric which he may come to regret if he wins the Democratic nomination. Obama has made an open offer to his prospective Republican challenger that both should accept public financing for the general election. While this may have seemed a bold and refreshing challenge when issued back in February 2007, if Obama winds up facing a cash-strapped Mike Huckabee or John McCain, he may eat those words. However, because Giuliani and Romney would be less inclined to give up their accumulated campaign wealth, Obama's gambit would be safer were either of them the GOP nominee.

Frankly, I don't much care whether Edwards (or any of the other Democratic candidates) "accepts" soft money. Outside groups will continue to spend throughout the presidential race, and for a candidate continually to condemn spending beneficial to their campaign is going to begin to sound disingenuous. The simple fact is that 527s and soft money are not going away before next November, and since Republicans will have every opportunity to exploit the 527 loophole, why shouldn't the Dems, too? And while there may be a few political points to be scored with independent voters from openly lamenting the role of money in presidential politics, the issue doesn't even poll when Americans are asked about the most pressing issues facing the country.

You can talk all you want about taking a stand against the influence of money in politics, but there's a time and a place. That time is not during the primaries, and not during the general election, but after a Democrat takes the oath of office. And that place is not on the campaign trail in Iowa, but behind the desk in the Oval Office with your Sterling silver bill-signing pen in hand. Until then, however, let's not lose sight of the immediate goal: a Democratic president. And for that to happen, I'll grant our candidates a temporary moral reprieve on the money issue.