Isn’t this what public financing should be?

Photo by: Tracy Olson

This is not a political post.* It’s an observation of an ironic application of the term “public financing” as it is used in this article in the New York Times (my bold for emphasis):

Mr. Obama’s startling success (at raising funds from small contributions online has) now put him on the spot, tempting him to back away from indications he gave last year that he would agree to accept public financing in the general election if the Republican nominee did the same.”

Read the whole article. If you’re fascinated with online commerce or social media or web-based advocacy, it reports a phenomenal (a word that doesn’t come close to capturing its gravity, however) accomplishment: The Obama campaign collected $36 million in January “overwhelmingly by small online donations.” As in, contributions from “the public.”

Okay. Here comes the irony. I can’t think of a political point of view — right or left — that would disagree with the notion that the most perfect form of campaign financing is that whereby individual citizens make small donations to the candidate of their choice. The kind that the Internet enables. The kind that anyone with a phone who knows how to dial an 800 number can make. Even those on the left must surely agree that what Obama is doing beats a government-run “public” method. Those on the right must surely admit what Obama’s contributors are doing is an incredible display of patriotism and individualism. Isn’t this the kind of citizen-generated financing that both conservatives and liberals should applaud? No $1,000 a plate fundraisers. No fake survey direct mail. No Labor-Union or corporate fat-cat PACs. (Note: I’m sure the Obama campaign had its share of traditional fund-raising activities, but the recent explosion of funds came by from small contributions pouring in online.)

Again, this is not a political post.* It’s merely an observation that I believe we’re seeing what “public” financing probably should be — and it’s not exactly comforting for some on the right — or left.

*Whenever I start out a post saying, “this is not a political post,” it’s a surefire indication that it is.

  • I’ve been thinking about this a lot, Rex. Functionally, what Obama is doing is public financing, but let’s also consider—the cap is $2,300. How many Americans have that much disposable income that they’re willing to give to a candidate? I argue not many. If you bring it down to $250, well … then maybe that’s truly on the order of public financing. Your average American can probably scrape together $250.

  • I don’t know the break-down of Obama’s contributions, but it sound like much of it is coming from people who don’t typically give to such campaigns — for just the reason you imply: that campaign contributions are something rich people or organizations (i.e., union PACS, corporate executives, movie stars, advocacy groups) do. I think — and I may be wrong as I haven’t seen the reporting — that individual Americans who support Obama have decided to skip the middle-people (govt. financing, PACs, the “P”arty) to give small contributions directly to the candidate. I am not saying, however, that rich people shouldn’t give $2,300 if they want to, or that Labor unions shouldn’t give big contributions or that corporate PACs or advocacy groups should collect and distribute funds. I’m just saying, what the Obama campaign is pulling off seems more like “pure” public financing.

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  • David Shaw

    Rex: I agree with you. Campaign finance reform was intended in part to limit–though not eliminate–the impact of special interest funding of candidates. I don’t think anyone anticipated the real impact of the web on this issue–though Howard Dean’s campaign gave some indications of what was possible. I find it ironic that Obama is accused of flip-flopping on taking “public” money by candidates who haven’t particularly been shy about taking special interest money. Whether or not one is “for Obama,” I’m certainly “for” the indications that his campaign is motivating people to contribute money and take the time to vote. Frankly, the fact that young people are voting, and that former non-voters are actually voting is probably a real threat to our current leaders, who have relied on and benefitted voter apathy for too long. It’s good to see democracy back in action, in large part thanks to the disintermediating power of the web.

  • I agree with you on what “public funding” should be (then again, I’m more of a libertarian than right or left, so it’s to be expected). The people who are likely to be upset with Obama, however, are those who are as concerned with the amount of money in politics as the source of such money. If Obama accepts public funding, he’d also be accepting a spending cap. In 2007, the cap would have been $81.78 million. It’s not clear yet what the cap will be for 2008 (it’s set at $20 million + COLA using 1974 as the base year). If you care more about limiting special interest money than you do about limiting total campaign spending, Obama declining public funds in favor of small individual donations exceeding the cap probably doesn’t matter as much.