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Save the System

With receipts already above the $130 million mark, it’s obviously too late to salvage the presidential public financing system for the primary election phase of the 2008 race. But candidates can sustain the general election phase and Congress should act to revive the whole system for 2012.

Why bother? Well, mainly to save presidential candidates from spending inordinate amounts of time and energy chasing money instead of figuring out how to solve America’s problems. And, to free them from obligation to the people — often representing special interests — who help them raise it. Collecting $500 million, which each of the major-party nominees may have to do this cycle, creates a lot of obligation.

Republican Congresses, dominated by enemies of campaign finance reform and public financing, refused for years to raise the amounts of public money available to presidential candidates — and spending limits to go with them. This cycle, the limit would be a paltry $45 million for the primaries, barely enough for ad buys in some of the big states holding primaries next year on “Super Duper Tuesday,” Feb. 5.

In 2000, George W. Bush decided to pass up public money and spending limits, taking in $100 million for the primaries and pre-convention campaigning. In 2004, both Bush and Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) declined the public money and raised $270 million and $235 million, respectively. This cycle’s heavily front-loaded primary schedule, plus the long stretch from February to August, could come close to doubling the requirement.

Even in 2000 and 2004, the nominees accepted public money and spending limits for the general, but in this round the leading contenders are raising money for both the primaries and the general, setting the stage for the post-Watergate financing system to die.

Hope for preserving the system lies in an idea originated by Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), blessed by the Federal Election Commission and agreed to by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). The two have announced they will raise money for the general but keep it in escrow and, if nominated, give it back to donors if the opposition candidate agrees to accept public money. We’d hope that all the other contenders would sign on to this pact — and that their supporters would urge them to do so.

For 2012, Reps. Marty Meehan (D-Mass.), Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), David Price (D-N.C.) and Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) have introduced legislation to raise limits for primary candidates to $150 million and provide $100 million each for the general. Their bill would quadruple the federal match from one-to-one to four-to-one for contributions under $200 and would fund the increases by raising the checkoff amount on federal income tax forms from $3 to $10.

Given the spending bonanza that will take place this cycle, we question whether the amounts are adequate, particularly for primary campaigns. But the principle is right: As much as possible, candidates should be judged for the quality of their ideas and character, not their ability to raise cash.

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