As a life-long advocate for public financing of elections, I believe that Barack Obama's decision not to participate in the current presidential public finance system will advance the day when we will finally have a true system of public financing for all federal races. Here's why:
* The simple fact is that we're not going to get a real system of public financing for all federal races without a Democratic president and strong Democratic majorities in Congress. As president, McCain might tinker around the edges of campaign finance reform, but real reform isn't going to happen unless the winds of change really sweep through Washington. We need an overwhelming Democratic victory to set the stage for real reform that takes big money out of politics.
His massive small donor fundraising base allows Obama to compete in red and purple states around the country. It will not only boost his own chances of election, but increase the number of Democrats who are elected to Congress as well. And it materially increases the odds of a decisive Democratic victory that will allow us to break through the partisan gridlock of the last two decades.
* Obama's decision frames the issue of public financing correctly. We don't need public financing to limit the amount of money spent on political organizing or communication. The problem isn't that we spend too much as a society on politics -- on the democratic process that determines our future. As a society, we spend a great deal less on political communication than on marketing for tooth paste or soft drinks.
The problem isn't the amount of money in politics, it's the source of the money. Our goal shouldn't be to keep money out of politics -- but rather to keep big money out of politics. Public financing is critical to prevent big corporations and the wealthy from continuing their domination of what might otherwise be a truly democratic political system. Public financing should be about preventing plutocracy and facilitating democracy. Political communication, grassroots organization, door to door canvassing, political rallies all cost money -- but they are critical for engaging everyday people in the political process. Let's face it, the long heated, expensive, primary battle has engaged more people in politics today than in decades.
A true system of public financing would reward campaigns that raise small donations from everyday people like the million and a half Internet Obama donors. Such a system might have an six to one or eight to one match for all small donations of under $200 and prohibit larger contributions. A true system of public financing would encourage grass roots organizing and simultaneously keep the wealthy from calling the political shots.
* Obama's decision will do a lot to foster bi-partisan support for real public financing. For decades the Republicans -- who are now yelping about Obama's decision -- have done everything in their power to oppose public financing of elections. After all, their major constituencies are big corporations and the wealthy. Even after campaign giving limits and the current system of pubic financing for presidential campaigns were passed after the Watergate scandals, the Republicans could rest easy. They could evade the system of limits through networks of right wing independent organizations like the "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth" or "Freedom's Watch" that could raise unlimited amounts of money from gazillionaires. Of course any system that limits total spending on a presidential race encourages these kinds of end runs for both parties.
There will be a whole lot more interest among Republicans in a system of public financing after Obama wallops them in fundraising this fall. That whipping will cause a lot of Republican attitude adjustment. There is nothing that could do more to advance the day when we pass a true system of public financing for the presidency, house and senate.
Robert Creamer is a long time political organizer and strategist and author of the recent book: Stand Up Straight: How Progressives Can Win, available on Amazon.com.
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