DEMOCRATS WILL gather in Boston at the end of July to nominate their party's presidential candidate -- a nominee whose identity has been clear since March. (Hint: his initials are JFK). Only now, the nominating convention -- for which, by the way, the party receives $15 million in public funds -- might not produce an official nominee. The point would be to give the eventual nominee, Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, several more weeks during which he can raise and spend private money before he takes the $75 million check that each major party candidate gets from the government, supposedly to provide the full financing for their general election campaigns.
The campaign's argument for this unprecedented ploy is that it would like to even the financial playing field between the two candidates. Because the Democratic convention is five weeks earlier than the Republican gathering, Mr. Kerry would be at a disadvantage, having to spend his federal money over a longer period than would President Bush. This looked like a good deal to the Democrats when they thought they would have a candidate who would take government matching funds during the primary season and therefore agree to limit spending during that period. Then, an early infusion of general election financing was to the party's benefit. But now, with Mr. Kerry having chosen to forgo matching funds and, like the president, raising unprecedented amounts on his own, the financial calculus has shifted. Mr. Kerry's choice to be seen manipulating the rules will have its own cost, of course -- but it won't be in cash. We do look forward to his non-acceptance speech.
This is a symptom of a presidential financing system that has degenerated into meaninglessness. Gushers of cash are flowing into both presidential campaigns for what are supposedly their "primary" contests. Boosted by the doubling of the contribution limit to $2,000, Mr. Bush has broken the $200 million barrier -- nearly twice his take four years ago, when he became the first eventual nominee to opt out of the matching fund system. Mr. Kerry announced yesterday that he has topped $117 million, most of it raised after he dispatched his primary opponents.
If the system is to remain in place, it must be dramatically overhauled to take into account the reality of a front-loaded primary calendar and soaring campaign costs. The existing matching fund system for the primaries is all but dead: It's hard to imagine another successful party nominee who would participate in it. If it is to be continued, the amount that's matched needs to be increased. The primary spending ceiling must be raised. And the time at which candidates receive their general election checks must be adjusted to comport with reality, not the artificial timing of nominating conventions that, if Mr. Kerry proceeds with this plan, will be more meaningless than ever.