It is widely known that Barack Obama decided to forgo public financing for his general election campaign, while John McCain chose to accept it. This reflects Obama’s greater success in fund-raising, and it also represents an historic reversal of the traditional Republican dominance in campaign finance. Obama’s success was foreshadowed by that of Bill Clinton, whose fund-raising was very competitive with the Republicans.
It is less widely known that both Obama and McCain have successfully used loopholes in campaign finance law to get huge individual contributions to joint committees that support both their parties and the individual campaigns. Such support has enabled McCain and the Republicans to compete with Obama’s deep pockets, but it is clear that Obama, too, has benefited.
The New York Times (October 21, A1) recently reported that each campaign received $25,000 or more from about 2000 people, as donations to various joint fund-raising committees, through September. McCain drew particular support from finance, real estate, and the oil and gas industry. Obama also got heavy support from the financial industry and real estate; in addition, he drew heavily on lawyers and the entertainment industry.
If controlling the influence of big money in presidential politics is a desirable objective, then current laws are not doing the job. President Obama, as the principal beneficiary of a campaign finance system that profoundly undercuts the principle of the equality of all citizens, ought to make it a high priority to find ways of getting the power of big money under control.
Republicans, having finally been burned by the system that they worked so hard to craft, may be willing to see more effective controls. Even the conservative, Republican majority on the Supreme Court (which infamously rejected limits on campaign donations because such donations are defined as a form of speech which may not be restricted) might be inclined to rethink that doctrine, now that their favored candidates are losing.
The exact shape of a solution that can pass Congress, get President Obama’s signature, and pass muster in the Courts, is far too complex to define here. One thing is clear, though: every attempt to regulate campaign finance has generated new practices devoted to exploiting whatever loopholes the legislation allows. That is exactly what The New York Times described in the article previously cited.
I would, however, offer two principles that the framers of the new policy ought to keep in mind. The first is that a system of public finance of all elections, excluding private donations, is imperative if we intend to check the overweening power of big money in our political process. Compromises will be required to get this legislation passed, and the influence of big money will be felt in the process. The final result will be less than satisfactory and will have loopholes. But we have to keep the principle of public campaign finance as our goal, and continue to struggle toward it. The alternative is to surrender to plutocracy.
My second principle is openness. To the extent that big money succeeds in retaining a major role in campaign finance, we should insist on extensive publicity when money is given, and insist that such information be provided to the public and the press promptly, so that we as citizens can know, in a timely manner, just who is throwing the money around, and who is taking it. The viability of our democracy is at stake.
John Peeler is a retired professor of political science at Bucknell University, specializing in Latin American and international affairs. His op-ed essays have appeared in The Christian Science Monitor and USA Today, as well as many in local papers here in central Pennsylvania where he lives. He has had letters published in both the New York Times and the Washington Post.
Other articles by John Peeler: