Executive Director, Brennan Center for Justice, NYU School of Law
Author of A Return to Common Sense
Barack Obama's decision to opt out of public funding for the general election is not a surprise. It was so well telegraphed, he should take out a patent.
The presidential public funding system worked well for three decades after it was enacted in the early 1970s. It leveled the playing field, boosted competition and reduced corruption. Think of it this way: in the first five elections under presidential public funding, a challenger beat an incumbent president three times. There's no congressional district in America with that much competition!
But the presidential system needs repair. Principally, candidates simply don't get enough money to mount a fully strong race in a modern election. The amount, when it was set, was about two thirds of the amount spent by the McGovern campaign of 1972 - in other words, two thirds of the least successful presidential campaign in modern history!
One reason Obama spurned public funds is that he has reaped an unprecedented flood of small donor contributions, given largely over the Internet. But in Congress, candidates are still raising funds the old fashioned way: just 10 percent of contributions are from "small donors." The small donor revolution is just a rumor on Capitol Hill, where few candidates have Obama's charisma. Why not improve the public funding plan by letting candidates raise more money from small contributions? That will push candidates to spend time on grassroots organizing - another boost for participation.
Obama is running on "change," and McCain on "reform." There's a rare moment when both parties are competing to tell voters what they will do to boost democracy and fix the system. It's up to us voters to make the most of it. The real question is not what the candidates do in 2008. What we should ask is: what are you going to do in 2009?
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