What Are We After?

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USA Today weighs in on the Obama/McCain spat over public financing in the general election and rightly identifies the need to not only rehab the presidential public funding system but create one for congressional campaigns as well.

This scuffle is getting weighed down in semantics of who promised what, and when. The bigger issue that must be addressed in whether the next administration will take major steps to curtail the influence of big money on elections, and on the policy that gets made in Washington.

Obama has spoken out many times in support of full public financing of elections, and is a co-sponsor of the Fair Elections Now Act that would give Senate candidates the option to run with public financing. Any reluctance to opt in to the presidential system for the general election seems attributable to concerns over having enough resources to mount his campaign, not an idealogical opposition to the idea. Indeed his record fundraising can be largely attributed to cultivation of a small donor base.

It's a bit ironic for McCain to go after Obama for waffling on public financing, since McCain is in the process of maneuvering his way out of the primary public financing program now that he is the presumptive Republican nominee for President and big donors are taking his calls. His own stance on public financing of elections remains unclear at this point: he's been a strong supporter of Clean Election programs at the state level but has not supported similar programs at the federal level.

Bottom line: it'd be good to see both the Democratic and Republican candidates opt in to public financing for the general, but in the end the presidential public financing program is broken and needs to be fixed with more funds, and a bigger emphasis on increasing the influence of small donors. We need commitments from both parties to aggressively pursue Clean Elections public financing proposals at the federal level when they take office.