There’s been a lot of talk lately about whether presidential candidates Obama and McCain have a “deal” to accept public funding if they are their parties’ nominees. What we should be talking about is why a “deal” has become necessary and why there is a serious risk that, if it ever existed, it will collapse under the weight of private money flooding the campaigns. We also should be talking about what it means for our country that our leaders—President, Senators, Members of the House of Representatives—are dependent on funds raised from wealthy individuals and special interests to run for office.
For many years, every major-party candidate for president opted into our presidential public funding system to run his campaign. There was no need to cut a deal. There was enough money provided through the system to ensure that the candidates could vigorously compete.
The presidential public funding system freed the candidates from the endless money chase. They could spend their time talking to voters—and maybe even listening to them!—instead of ingratiating themselves to a minute clique of wealthy contributors with not-so-hidden agendas. Because rich donors could not claim credit for the winner’s success, there was reason to hope that the President would consult the interests of ordinary Americans when making national policy decisions.
Granted, some of the current candidates are less dependent on deep pockets than others. But research released by the Campaign Finance Institute shows that, as of the end of 2007, only one candidate had raised even half of his funds from small donors-and he’s not part of the “deal.” When all of a candidates’ funds come from small donors or public financing, we’ll have a lot less concern about who is likely to be pulling the policy strings.
It is a simple matter to update the presidential public funding system provides so that it can provide the resources necessary for competitive campaigns. There is already a bill that will do the job. There is also a bill that would provide public funding for U.S. Senate, and there soon will be a House companion. If our leaders can reach office without debts to donors, they are in a much better position to hear the voices of voters.
The hope that our next President will listen to us should not be dependent upon a “deal” between two major contenders. The candidates’ “deal” should be with the people. That is what democracy is all about.