11/15/2010 10:27 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Save the Small Donor

Lost in last week's analysis of Campaign 2010 was sobering news about the first casualty of Campaign 2012: the small donor.

Just two years ago, then-candidate Barack Obama seemed to have revolutionized presidential politics by collecting more than $115 million in small contributions -- $200 or less - from 2.5 million people.

Now, the President's top political strategist apparently is resigned to a back-to-the-future campaign in 2012, financed in large part by deep-pocketed donors operating in the shadows and writing six- and even seven-figure checks.

After watching Republicans harvest $200 million or more this year from millionaires and corporations, much of it given anonymously, David Axelrod told Politico last week he expects Democratic sugar-daddies to answer in-kind in 2012.

So the money chase is on. Axelrod figures wealthy GOP sympathizers are prepared to put down $500 million to beat Obama. When rich Democrats match it, and you can bet they will, we're looking at a campaign with $1 billion in secret money.

If you think that kind of cash can flow into our political system without some strings attached, think again. Political investors are like the rest of us, they want a return on their money.

And because the Supreme Court has decided that corporations, unions, trade groups and other special interests have a Constitutional right to spend whatever they want to influence our elections, there's not much standing between our democracy and a return to the shenanigans of the Nixon era.

Unless Congress acts -- in the lame duck session beginning this week.

The DISCLOSE Act, twice stalled in the Senate by a Republican-led filibuster, most recently by a single vote, would throw some sunshine on the secret giving. It stands for the proposition that if folks are going to try and buy our elections, we at least ought to know who they are.

DISCLOSE's fate likely hinges on Maine Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, a pair of Republicans who've been willing to buck their party leadership when conscience demanded it. This is such a time.

And while the Senate gets busy on DISCLOSE, House Democrats can bring an honorable end to their four-year majority by acting on the Fair Elections Now Act. It would throw a lifeline to small donors and to Congressional candidates who'd prefer answering to them rather than to Wall Street, big Pharma, energy companies and big unions.

Fair Elections Now would allow candidates who want to rely on small gifts -- $100 or less - to compete with big money-backed opponents. It would provide participating candidates with grants and matching donations from a public "Fair Elections Fund" to supplement the small checks.

Admittedly, neither DISCLOSE nor Fair Elections Now is a complete answer to the threat that large, secret, special interest money poses to our democracy. But for now anyway, they're the best weapons, really the only weapons, at hand.