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Humpty Dumpty

In combination, public financing of presidential campaigns and campaign finance reform were supposed to create a level playing field for the general election and set a limit of $2,300 on individual contributions.

But this year, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) has blown the public finance system to smithereens, and he and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) have made a mockery of contribution limits. Next year, Congress has to put Humpty Dumpty back together.

Public financing of presidential campaigns, invented in reaction to Watergate-era scandals, has worked for 34 years, sort of. In the 1996 election, President Bill Clinton supplemented his public money with millions of dollars in soft money donated without limits by corporations, unions and individuals to the Democratic National Committee and then spent on his behalf.

Big-time soft money went bipartisan in 2000, and GOP candidate George W. Bush opted out of public financing for the primary campaign, although he and Democrat Al Gore accepted its limits for the general. In 2002, the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act outlawed soft money and supposedly limited individual contributions to $2,300 per candidate per election.

In 2004, Bush and Democrats John Kerry and Howard Dean could and did reject public limits for the primaries, but Bush and Kerry accepted them for the general. In all, Bush and Kerry raised and spent $675.7 million between them.

This year, Obama already has raised $600 million and — breaking a promise — became the first presidential candidate since 1976 to refuse public financing for the general election. As a result, he has a vast money advantage over McCain, who’s limited to $84.1 million for the general.

The media, which likely would be outraged if Republicans had such an advantage, has been gushing over Obama’s admittedly impressive ability to attract 3.1 million donors, a quarter of whom have contributed $200 or less.

However, as the Washington Post pointed out last week, Obama and McCain are still relying on the kind of fat cat contributors whose influence the reform was supposed to limit — bundlers and individuals contributing tens of thousands of dollars via the political parties and separate party “victory funds.”

It’s perfectly legal, but it’s akin to Clinton’s finding a loophole for soft money in 1996. Obama and McCain can go to a rich donor and ask for not $2,300 — or $4,600 for the primary and general — but $70,100, distributed between the campaign, the parties and joint committees.

The donor’s spouse and children can all match that — and each candidate also has 300 friends who have raised (“bundled”) $100,000 or more and a few dozen who have raised $500,000. Does anyone think that these super-donors won’t have special access and influence in the new administration?

Reform legislation has been introduced — and backed, in principle, by McCain and Obama — to do away with joint committees, provide a 4-1 federal match for contributions of $200 or less and significantly enlarge the amount of public funds available for general election campaigns.

We favor such reform to encourage candidates to run on public money, to reduce the role of big givers and to reduce the amount of time candidates have to spend wooing fat cats as they run and responding to their wishes after they win.

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