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Posted by on Feb 13, 2008 in Politics | 13 comments

Fair Is as Fair Does

My esteemed co-blogger Paul Silver — with whom I frequently agree — wrote earlier about his disappointment with McCain’s perceived “flip flop” on campaign finance. The DNC was also up in arms about McCain’s decision, citing in a press release this line from today’s related NYT story:

Mr. McCain’s advisers said that the candidate, despite his signature legislative efforts to restrict the money spent on political campaigns, would not accept public financing and spending limits for this year’s general campaign.

What the DNC left out was the very next line from the same story:

But in 2007, Mr. McCain did agree to a nonaggression pact with Senator Barack Obama to accept public financing, about $85 million each for the general election, if the Democratic nominee did the same.

As regular TMV readers already know, I like both McCain and Obama, and I’m leaning in the latter’s direction right now, despite my Republican roots.

But no matter what I think about the candidates, and with all due respect to Paul Silver, it seems to me the crux of the issue is this: If both candidates in the general election don’t play by the same rules, it’s foolish for one to financially handicap his/her campaign while the other legally spends like a drunken sailor.

I would like to see a public financing system some day. By at least one estimate, such a system would not cost taxpayers more than $15 per household for all federal and state races. But until the Supreme Court decides that money should not equal speech, any attempt to level the playing field will be sporadic at best. And as long as there’s an unlevel playing field, it will be damn hard for candidates, Republican or Democrat or otherwise, public-finance advocates or not, to make the “enlightened” call and reject private money.

[For related information on this subject, reference my essay from May 2007, “Cleaning Up Political Ads”]

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  • Slamfu

    McCain also just voted against a bill banning waterboarding today. Senate vote was 51-45. He’s basically managed to undermine his stance on the two issues that made me think he was an ok candidate. I think Clinton just moved up to my #2 spot for general election vote.

  • BBQ

    I agree with Pete on this.

    As for the vote today, as a McCain fan I can say that I really want to hear a good answer for that vote.

  • casualobserver

    Just to show the Dems are consistent today, they are also leaving out the full story on the so-called “waterboarding” vote as well. Rather than it be a straight up and down vote on waterboarding, it is actually a bill which limits CIA interrogation to 19 things published in the Army Ops Manual. It is the limiting of a covert operation to a pre-published agenda of techniques that has drawn the no vote.

  • PaulSilver

    I agree with you about a level playing field and clarified this point in the comments section of my post.
    The flip flopping part that bothered me was his failure to support Dick Durbin’s and Arlen Specter’s legislation in the Senate that would promote public finance of elections for members of Congress.
    He had been an enthusiastic advocate of such a program in his home State of Arizona which is working pretty well by most accounts.

  • PaulSilver

    Another thought:
    Since the majority of campaign funds go to advertising and media firms perhaps we consider a small tax on these companies to fund Campaigns. This way the money will make it way back into the industry that provided the funds. This would sidestep the alternative idea of requiring free media to candidates from those who profit from the public airwaves.

  • Guest

    BBQ — consider Ed Morrissey’s take on the torture bill vote, summarized in my comment (here) on Damozel’s post.

  • Guest

    Paul — Thanks for the additional detail. I was not aware that McCain failed to support the Durbin/Specter bill. Do you have a source for more info on what that bill called for?

  • PaulSilver

    This is the website for the Public Campaign Action Fund

    This is a quote from the report mentioned in my post:

    “When a reporter from The Hill asked him whether he would support Sen. Dick Durbin’s federal “Fair Elections Now Act,” modeled directly on Arizona, “McCain dismissed the proposal yesterday with a flat ‘no.’”Last year, Jacob Soberoff of the election-reform group Why Tuesday asked McCain on tape:

    Q: You got clean elections in Arizona, do you want to see that on a national level?

    McCain: Ahhhh, you mean the –

    Q: Public financing?

    McCain: No, I don’t think that’s what we want to do. I think we ought to let the BCRA see how it plays out first, but I’m very worried about the 527s.”

    I agree that we need some constraints on third party campaigns but an answer to these is robust funding for the candidates themselves.

  • Guest

    You know, Paul, I totally misread that part of the post, confused it with McCain’s own general election campaign. My apologies.

  • DLS

    I still have yet to see a justification for taxpayer financing of people’s campaigns (which is particularly odd if the campaigners are at odds with taxpayers insofar as the candidates’ politics are concerned), or details about the financing and who would qualify, and how, and so on.

  • PaulSilver

    Is it difficult for me to know with any certainty what a candidate stands for. The George Bush who is President is not the same George Bush who was governor of my State or candidate for President.

    It seems that as McCain panders to the far right he is losing his soul and his independent credentials.
    However it seems that any pandering from Obama is to Independents. Which is fine with me.

  • PaulSilver

    To me the justification for public finance is that it is human nature to be defferential to those who help you get elected. If we don’t provide public finance then special interest are likely to continue to have more influence on legislators than the constituents who aren’t able to provide comparable support or build personal relationships.

    The examples of legislative leaders carrying water for deep pocket contributors is endless from Senator Chuck Shumer to Ted Stevens.

    The mechanism of public finance systems is available at

  • DLS

    Thanks, Paul.

    I’m not naive about the PAC system, which is why I referred to it already, elsewhere. I do believe a large part of the problem is incumbency and that the members of Congress are constantly in re-election campaign mode (a reason by itself for extending House terms to three or four years, to reduce the number of elections — though I’d have other ideas in mind). Term limits or at least the banning of consecutive terms in the same kind of office would help address this.

    In a way this is “fuzzily” analogous to the problem of the electoral college and the more crude precision of GOP delegate allocation after primaries as contrasted with the better Dem method. The only way the small states can avoid losing all clout is to with winner-take-all (though two smaller states use a district system for awarding electors). The larger states easily respond with winner-take-all. (This is like Obama or McCain refusing to accept federal financing and limits if the other guy doesn’t; it simply doesn’t make sense to deliberate choose to place one’s self in an inferior position, money-wise or in any other way). Short of going to direct election of the President and VP (or having the Pres appoint the VP), which is what most reformers of the Electoral College want (its abolition!), the better thing to do (if it is retained) is to have the district system apply to all states and a 40-60 scale or 33-66 or some similar percentage-of-the-vote scale used to award the extra two electors in each state to the two parties (assuming for now that’s the way it will remain). Better still would be proportional allocation with each state getting a total of the square root of their electorates (for both electors and for delegates to the two conventions). Penrose’s square-root formula is ideal-world but suitable for that purpose because it’s truly neutral. It also compromises right between pure vote numbers (large states) and equal suffrage (small states get much more relative power). The point behind all this is that you solve the problems of some undesireable behavior that make perfect sense for one person if the other guy is doing it, by changing the rules so neither can do it. I’ll enjoy reading the Public Campaign site for details.

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