MAYBE THE public financing system for presidential campaigns can be saved after all -- at least part of it. The Federal Election Commission released a draft advisory opinion yesterday that could provide a way to slow the fundraising frenzy and encourage the 2008 nominees to accept full federal funding for their general election campaigns. The draft, likely to be approved by the commission at a meeting March 1, came in response to a creative request from Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.).
Like other presidential contenders this cycle, Mr. Obama is already raising money for a hoped-for general election campaign. The candidates are calculating that there are enough donors to go around and that the costs of campaigns have grown so high that it doesn't make sense to live within the $84 million public-money limit. But Mr. Obama asked whether he could also reserve the option, if he were to win the nomination, of returning those donations and taking public funds instead -- if the Republican nominee agreed to do so as well.
The FEC's positive reaction yesterday offers a glimmer of hope that 2008 will not become the first presidential election since the Watergate scandal to be fully financed by private funds. The system of providing federal matching funds during the primaries is dead, a victim of woefully outdated spending limits; none of the leading candidates participated in the system in 2004, and none is expected to this time around. But 2008 would be the first election in which candidates turn down matching funds for the general election as well. The result might be as much as $1 billion in combined spending, with enormous amounts of the candidates' time devoted to raising money rather than meeting voters. The solution of allowing a candidate to begin to raise general election funds now but opt to live within the system later isn't perfect, but it's far better than the alternative.
Mr. Obama's competitors in both parties should join him in trying to salvage this broken system. As the FEC prepares to finalize its ruling, the candidates should support its interpretation -- and pledge, if they win the nomination, to help control the campaign arms race.