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Can This System Be Saved?
Sen. Obama's intriguing bid to salvage public financing of presidential campaigns

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

THE PRESIDENTIAL public financing system is probably dead for the 2008 campaign. Certainly, the notion that candidates would limit their spending during the primary season in return for receiving federal matching funds has become quaint; the limits are so outdated and the amount of funds that can be raised so great that no serious candidate will take that bargain. And, for the first time, it looks as if the second part of the post-Watergate financing reform -- providing each major-party nominee with full financing for the general election campaign -- is about to become extinct as well.

Top-tier candidates of both parties, including Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) and former senator John Edwards, have already started raising money for a general election race. (They'll have to give it back if they don't win the nomination.) So has Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), but with a twist: Mr. Obama has asked the Federal Election Commission to rule on whether he could legally collect money for the general election campaign but ultimately decide to take public funding were he to win the nomination and his GOP opponent followed suit.

As Mr. Obama put it in his letter to the FEC, "Should both major parties' nominees elect to receive public funding, this would preserve the public financing system, now in danger of collapse, and facilitate the conduct of campaigns freed from any dependence on private fundraising." The FEC has said it is speeding up its review of Mr. Obama's intriguing proposal, which turns, as a legal matter, on the question of whether the candidate would be deemed to have "accepted" money he is raising for the general election campaign if he keeps it separate and unused. If the money has been raised but not "accepted," Mr. Obama argues, he could still choose to return it and take public financing instead.

Linguistically, this might be a stretch that only a former Harvard Law Review president could love. But as a matter of policy, it could salvage a failing system to promote the aims underlying the law. As Mr. Obama put it, "Congress concluded some thirty years ago that the public funding alternative . . . would serve core purposes in the public interest: limiting the escalation of campaign spending and the associated pressures on candidates to raise, at the expense of time devoted to public dialogue, ever vaster sums of money."

Interpreting the law in a way that would allow the nominees the chance to call off the fundraising arms race would further the purpose of the campaign finance law and avoid the first fully privately financed presidential campaign since Watergate. The FEC should allow that, and Mr. Obama's rivals in both parties should pledge, if they win the nomination, to help save the system, not destroy it.

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