Cross-posted from the Huffington Post
Sen. Barack Obama’s comments last week provided grist for renewed speculation about whether or not he will accept public financing for the general election. With no apparent sense of irony, he said to a roomful of donors at a high-ticket fundraiser that “we have created a parallel public financing system” of free-flowing Internet donations.
This remark may be a signal that Obama is considering using private money for the general election, which would make him the first candidate to do so since the election of President Nixon (before public funding was an option). It certainly is a clear sign that the explosion of small donors will require us to take a fresh look at the structures of campaign finance law.
But it will not help us move forward if enthusiasm for this influx of small donors obscures the facts. Money from large donors is not exactly going the way of the dinosaurs—79 bundlers for Obama have hit up their friends for aggregate contributions of $200,000 each. Still, it is certainly indisputable that having more small donations and less reliance on a tiny pool of wealthy people is a happy development in a democracy.
A true public financing system allows candidates to avoid $2,300-a-person fundraisers like Tuesday’s event. But it could look quite different from what we have now, which forecloses any private fundraising in the general election if a candidate accepts a public grant. Indeed, the development of a “parallel” system suggests a way to update the moribund presidential public funding program.