President George W. Bush is attempting to rewrite the rules on financing presidential elections -- but not via legislation.
Instead, the president is opting to forego federal matching funds until after the Republican Party primary in September of 2004, allowing him to avoid spending limits giving him a huge advantage in raising money. This will allow him to go on the offensive far earlier than the Democrats, who are expected to seek matching funds and abide by federal limits.
"Unless one of the current Democratic candidates opts to forgo public funding, all of them risk having to spend nearly all the $46 million available for the primary by the early date of March 15," Thomas B. Edsell wrote in the Washington Post in August. It will then be a full four months, "when the nomination is formally awarded," before the Democratic candidate can "qualify for the $75 million in federal general election money."
By contrast, Edsell writes, Bush will have "as much as $200 million to spend before he wins the GOP nomination in early September" and earns his $75 million in federal money.
That's why the president has been spending a lot of time on the road in recent months with his hand out looking to cash in.
Bush supporters say his fund-raising prowess is evidence of the president's popularity. But, as The Nation pointed out in a recent editorial, it really is "a measure of his popularity only among people who can afford to write $1,000 or $2,000 checks."
"That group," The Nation writes, "is less than one-tenth of 1% of the population, and far wealthier, whiter, older and more likely to be male than the general population. America's financial elite is well represented in this 'donor class,' and its interests in tax breaks and regulatory rollbacks are given disproportionate attention because of its contributions."
As a result, we get a tax cut that offers the vast majority of its benefits to the folks in the upper income strata (with about half the population is getting less than $100 back from the cut); an energy plan that calls for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and deregulation of energy companies rather than higher fuel efficiency standards for cars or more conservation; an assortment of no-bid contracts to contributors for reconstruction of a country we've recently invaded and taken over; and so on.
It would be easy to dismiss this as a case of one candidate seeking to skirt a well-functioning system. But it's not. President Bill Clinton used huge amounts of now-banned soft money to finance early advertisements during his re-election campaign in 1996, Edsell writes.
And, as legal experts told Edsell, once this loophole has been explored, it is likely that others will follow -- possibly the Republican candidate in 2008 or Sen. Hillary Clinton, if she were to seek the Democratic nod that year.
The Bush money chase may seem to raise questions about the effectiveness of the kind of clean-elections programs enacted in Maine, Arizona and elsewhere. After all, presidential campaigns receive federal matching funds if they agree to limit their spending.
The difference, however, is the scope of the laws being enacted in those states. Presidential matching funds typically cover no more than a third of the campaign. Candidates who qualify under clean-elections laws get a set amount of money from the campaign pot -- and all candidates get the same amount. Aside from raising a prescribed number of small contributions -- $5 in most cases, but it can be larger -- candidates are spared the need to seek out the big-money donors to help pay for their run for office. In addition, candidates would earn free television and radio airtime -- though cable television, newspaper and Internet advertising would still cost money.
The key difference, however, is a provision that does not exist now. Candidates targeted by free-spending opponents and by advocacy groups who run issue ads -- generally thinly veiled attacks by front groups -- would earn extra cash from the clean-elections fund to fight back. While candidates who participate in the clean elections system might not have the same kind of cash available to them that Bush has, they should have enough money and TV time to run a viable campaign -- and they would be able to use Bush's decision to take private money against him.
I do not offer clean elections as a panacea -- no funding system can completely rid our political culture of the ingrained, but legal, corruption that pushes the concerns of average working Americans to the margins.
But it should stem the huge influx of corporate cash into politics and open the system to candidates who might not be seen as viable for fund-raising reasons. And it would do so without violating the First Amendment.
Public Campaign is acting as a national clearinghouse for Clean Elections, offering model legislation and reports showing its effectiveness. For more information, write Public Campaign at 1320 19th St., NW, Suite M-1, Washington, D.C. 20036; phone, (202) 293-0222; fax, (202) 293-0202; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org; Web, www.publicampaign.org.
Hank Kalet is a poet and managing editor of two central New Jersey newspapers. Email email@example.com.