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Matching Funds System Can’t Be Fixed for 2008, but Maybe for 2012

Lots of things about this presidential campaign season have started to trouble me — its epic length, the primary scheduling scramble, Colorado GOP Rep. Tom Tancredo (just kidding) — but none as much as the sorry state of the presidential public funding system. [IMGCAP(1)]

Former Sen. John Edwards’ (D-N.C.) decision to take public funding drew predictable sneers from “experts” who detected the sour smell of desperation. But Edwards is a savvy candidate and he wouldn’t have taken the serious PR hit if he didn’t believe there was a serious upside to the program. There is — but, honestly, Edwards just needed the money.

The obvious advantage for Edwards, who has raised about $30 million, is free money just when he will need it most. The $23 million that Edwards raised in the first half of the year is chump change by Clinton-Obama standards. The government will “match” the first $250 of every contribution he’s raised, giving him a badly needed boost when the nominating contests start at the beginning of the New Year.

One of the basic rationales for a vital public funding program is that it relieves the relentless demands of fundraising, which suck up the bulk of every candidate’s time and energy. Call it old-school or quaint, but presidential and Congressional campaigns should ideally involve candidates spending actual time with actual voters. Public money means Edwards gets to shake more hands in the crucial Iowa caucus and chase fewer checkbooks in New York or Hollywood. And he will need it to survive the first set of contests.

Taking the government match also means President Edwards would owe fewer favors to big donors. For encyclopedic evidence of the basic problem, consider the seemingly endless list of George W. Bush’s Pioneers and Rangers who have cashed in on their association with the administration.

If you judged by the current polls, there are serious disadvantages for Edwards and any other candidate who decides to accept the federal match. For starters, the program hasn’t been updated to deal with the realities and burgeoning cost of modern political campaigning. Given the ridiculous calendar, which may force some voters to cast their absentee or early vote during the holiday season, the system needs major reform.

The matching system also imposes unrealistically low limits on how much candidates can spend in each state. For better or worse, the ballgame still is largely determined by the early caucuses and primaries — for Edwards, this means Iowa. Accepting the insanely low state limits means he can spend $1.5 million there, while nonparticipating candidates could invest upward of $15 million. Edwards already may be close to maxing out and figuring out ways to get around “blowing the spending cap.”

Of course, Edwards and any of the other candidates who accept matching funds also could just blow off the spending limits, knowing the toothless Federal Election Commission won’t get around to fining him until he’s drawing a pension. The program also kicks in way too late for it to become a viable alternative for serious candidates. Just look at the amount of money already being spent by the candidates on TV spots in Iowa and New Hampshire, along with radio spots running in South Carolina and elsewhere. Candidates need to hit the ground running (and spending) far earlier than the January start date.

But the overwhelming problem is that the spending limits haven’t kept pace with the times. Marquee candidates today can and will raise more than $100 million to secure the nomination. Why would they agree to spend only $50 million in the primaries and a little more in the general? Given the cost of broadcast ads that are the bread and butter of modern political campaigns today, $50 million is not nearly enough.

Congress’ failure to update the system means even the best-intentioned candidates are shrugging their shoulders and opting out. That means more money chasing, a less robust debate about real ideas and fewer candidates. The only winners are the candidates with the best name ID and fundraising capacity (Democratic Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois) and those who can write their own checks (ex-Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a Republican).

It’s too late to save the system for this presidential season. Perhaps Edwards — and maybe Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who also might take public money — is rolling the dice and taking his chances.

As campaign manager for Al Gore in 2000, we made a very tough call to use the public financing system. Honestly, I will never forget the hard decisions we made in cutting salaries, forcing consultants to go off the campaign payroll, asking senior staff to share hotel rooms and for Tipper Gore to fly coach on Southwest.

I am sure some of my former colleagues who are now working for the frontrunners are breathing more comfortably today than they did eight years ago.

But we can retrofit the system in time for 2012. Congress needs to pass legislation that would raise the overall spending limits, eliminate the state limits, increase the public- to-private match, start the program earlier — all to make this a viable option for serious candidates in future elections.

Earlier this year, Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), a champion of campaign finance reform, thought about running for president, but bowed out. Instead, Feingold made an excellent start on reforming the system by introducing an important piece of legislation, endorsed by both Obama and Clinton, that would make the necessary fixes. If either Clinton or Obama becomes president, the program might just get the Oval Office advocate it deserves.

Donna Brazile, the campaign manager for Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore in 2000, runs her own grass-roots political consulting firm.

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