06/30/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

7 Days : A "Democracy Czar" Can Make Up for Obama's Rejection of Public Funding -- w/ Waldman, Huffington, Shrum & Green

It will be forgivable that Obama opted out of the public finance system IF he appoints a White House "Democracy Czar" to obtain pro-democracy reforms, like repairing the broken presidential system he rejected.

I'm a life-long zealot for public funding of public elections but Obama's refusal to opt-in to the presidential system was a "no brainer" that any candidate -- whether McCain, Clinton - would have also done if in his shoes.

Yes he had pledged to opt in to the system if the Republican nominee did so. His reasons for reversing field, however, are politically compelling:

*Inadequate Money. $84 million in public funds - an amount pegged to what McGovern spent in 1972 in current dollars - is inadequate to run a robust national general election campaign. Given the higher costs of advertising and micro-targeting - as well as desire to contest more than a few "battleground states" because some red states can become purple if not blue - it takes not $84 million but more like $300 million+.

*The public doesn't care much, as I discovered the hard way when Mike Bloomberg spent $74 million to defeat me for NYC Mayor in 2001 - or nearly as much in one city as the FEC would allow a nominee in 50 states. Voters apparently think that issues of security, war and the economy are more urgent than campaign finance - a point Arianna makes in the excerpts below - and don't worry so long as the big spender appears to be independent of special interests. And just as voters correctly believed that Bloomberg was too rich to be bought, they will see that Obama's millions of small donors aren't special interests sending money with strings attached. It's almost a form of public funding, but without taxpayer dollars.

*Yes 527s can unethically and untruthfully and unregulated smear without fear of rebuttal, as Bob Shrum explains. And any candidate will want an adequate bank account to respond if necessary. Here a nominee can say he's a Boy Scout, based on the motto, "Be prepared."

*McCain has "unclean hands" when he tries to seize the high moral ground here since he previously used his pledge to opt-in during the primaries as collateral to obtain a bank loan needed to survive in 2007...before he too changed his mind and opted out in the nomination contest later.

*"Are all the laws but one to go unenforced?" asked Lincoln, when he ignored habeas corpus once in order to save the Union. And as important as campaign finance reform is, it would not be smart for Obama to comply with the presidential financing system and thereby diminish his chances to choose Supreme Court appointments, withdraw from Iraq, pursue a green economy, enact tax fairness, enforce civil rights laws.


It's awkward for a reformer - a law professor and advocate of ethics, lobbying, disclosure and congressional and presidential campaign finance reforms -- to reject the 30 year old system of public funding....unless by assuring his win he then commits to a larger principle of creating a "Democracy Czar" to push for all these reforms... Indeed, such an office could try to assure that the presidential finance system is adequately funded so that President Obama can run for reelection within it in 2012..

Even beyond protecting his reformist persona, there are three reasons that a White House Office for Democracy is essential.

First, while democracy issues were largely ignored in this election season because they don't move voters as pocketbook and war issues do, they are indeed vital and a sine qua non to all other reforms. So long as special interests dominate congressional considerations about military, environmental and tax policies, you won't get desirable procurement, pollution and economic reforms that people need and deserve. If our democracy is broken, America can't get into gear.

Second, there is no Department of Democracy, which is one of the reasons why issues such as congressional public financing, a presidential system that works, greater transparency in an Internetted era, and an stronger lobbying ethics law falls through the slats. As author Michael Waldman describes below, when as a 32 year-old unknown staffer he was put in charge of White House government reform efforts in 1993, it wasn't hard for congressional barons to figure out that it wasn't exactly a Clinton priority.

Third, these issues cut across all agencies and three branches. And since there is no Department of Democracy, only a person and office of sufficient stature and staff can be an inter-agency advocate making sure that all government agencies -- whatever their other substantive priorities -- not ignore the overall priority that the new administration must also be more trasnparent, accountable and indepdendent of special interest sway.

By way of analogy, when Jimmy Carter was president, the essential test of whether a country was friend or foe was whether they favored the Ruskies or Anaconda Copper. So Carter created an Assistant Secretary for Human Rights in the State Department, and put Pat Derian in as his advocate -- and now that's Carter's main legacy.

If a President Obama wants to push for policies to reverse global warming and reduce poverty and enact tax fairness, he has an EPA administrator, an HHS secretary, a Treasury Secretary to deputize who can project his interests.

But where's his Pat Derian?

Listen to the entire show here on Air America.


WALDMAN: Q: In your new book, "A Return to Common Sense", you offer seven ideas for restoring democracy to America. What one or two would you advise Barack Obama as a President-Elect to focus on? "One is a major improvement in voting by making registration an obligation of government, which would add up to 50 million people to the rolls. Another is a very tough lift but would do more than anything else to change the culture in Washington, which is campaign finance reform -- finally moving to public financing for Congress and restoring the Presidential system. And one more...he's got to work to restore checks and balances, and bring the imperial, monarchical presidency back into line."

WALDMAN: Q: Speaking of which, you were an advisor to President Bill Clinton, who advocated a campaign finance reform program, but he couldn't get it enacted. What happened? "I was in the room at the very first meeting that the new President had with the Democratic leadership of Congress, the day after the Inaugural, in the Cabinet Room. And believe it or not, it was on the need to pass public financing. Bill Clinton talked about how politically important it was, and Vice President Gore provided a very strong moral voice for it. The Senate Democrats said they were going to do it. But then Tom Foley, the Speaker of the House, spoke, and it was like watching a scene from a gangster movie... 'it's going to be really tough for Dan Rostenkowski to whip the guys on this and the tax bill at the same time'.... The caption could have read, 'If you dare to push campaign finance on us, watch what happens to your main priority!'"

HUFFINGTON: Q: In the Democratic primaries, such long-time pro-democracy advocates as Obama and Clinton largely ignored democracy issues. Why? "Well, elections are not about every issue. Elections are about whatever the poignant issues of the time are. And right now, it's clearly pocketbook issues and the war. And a lot of other things that are incredibly significant in governing are not going to be major campaigning issues."

SHRUM: Q: Barack Obama was criticized this week for flip-flopping when he opted out of the public funding system. But meanwhile, John McCain has been riding the Zig-Zag Express on so many issues, most recently offshore oil drilling. Will this catch up with McCain or will the media continue to give him a free pass? "I think McCain is beginning to come across as stylistically Dole and substantively Bush, and I can't imagine a worse combination to go into a general election in a year when people want change." HUFFINGTON: "I'm hoping we're going to reach a tipping point, because [the flip-flops] are now becoming daily. And there's one theme to them, which makes it easier for the media to grasp, which is basically McCain surrendering everything he believes in. The oil drilling was the latest, but of course we've had the tax cuts, we've had immigration, we've had torture, we've had agents of intolerance. There is one very clear narrative thread here, so at some point I hope the national media will catch up with the fact that the McCain they fell in love with in 2000 is not on the ballot in 2008."

HUFFINGTON: Q: Do you think Republicans will give in to the temptation to make Michele Obama a political target? "Obviously she will be a target. Sheri Blair [Tony Blair's wife] was telling me that if you look at whose wives are being attacked, it's always the wives of guys who are ahead, who are doing well.... It's not Cindy McCain who is being attacked, and here in London it's not Gordon Brown's wife who is being attacked, because they have plenty to attack him on. So his wife will continue to be a target as long as Obama is the front-runner." SHRUM: "You used the phrase 'will Republicans surrender to the temptation.' They will embrace it! They can't resist it. They have these 527s, these independent operators out there right now, who are trafficking in complete lies, who are moving around the Internet. And someone like Floyd Brown, who made the Willie Horton commercial in 1988, is going to make a commercial that is going to be a flat-out lie. And the Obama campaign is going to have to come back and whack it hard."

HUFFINGTON: Q: This week, when the Supreme Court ruled that Guantanamo Bay detainees have the right to challenge their detention in federal courts, McCain called it one of the worst Supreme Court decisions in history. Arianna, as one who has frequently worries that fear will trump hope in this election, do you think that McCain will continue to use war and terrorism to appeal to voter's fears? "Yes, I think it's clear that the only card that McCain has left is fear, and he's going to play it with everything he has. There's nothing else left; what else does he have?"