THANKS TO an innovative request from Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, the Federal Election Commission voted yesterday to try to salvage the endangered public financing system for presidential elections. Now it is up to presidential candidates who claim to support that system to put real commitment behind their rhetoric.
The FEC ruled that candidates can raise general election money now -- as most top-tier contenders are doing -- but change their minds down the road, return the private money and accept public financing instead. Candidates who are sincere supporters of public financing ought to be willing to pledge to stay within the system if they win their party's nomination and the other side's nominee promises to do the same.
So far, the indications are favorable. "If Senator Obama is the nominee, he will aggressively pursue an agreement with the Republican nominee to preserve a publicly financed general election," spokesman Bill Burton said after the FEC action. He was matched by the campaign of Arizona Sen. John McCain. "Should John McCain win the Republican nomination, we will agree to accept public financing in the general election, if the Democratic nominee agrees to do the same," said campaign manager Terry Nelson.
The 2008 campaign had been shaping up to be the first in which both parts of the post-Watergate presidential financing system collapsed. By the 2004 race, the cost of campaigning and the capacity for fundraising had so outstripped spending restrictions for the primary campaign that none of the serious contenders agreed to accept matching funds in exchange for limiting his spending. This time around it looked as if the system of full financing for the general election -- each major party nominee would receive about $85 million in exchange for forgoing private funds -- would be obsolete as well.
But the FEC's approval of Mr. Obama's request would allow candidates to agree to call off the general election money race -- provided that other candidates follow the example of Mr. Obama and Mr. McCain. The campaigns of John Edwards and Rudolph W. Giuliani did not respond to e-mail inquiries; Mitt Romney's campaign said it was focused on the primaries. "We'll definitely consider it," said Phil Singer, a spokesman for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's campaign.
Candidates who believe in public financing need to do more than consider Mr. Obama's challenge. They should just say yes and help save the system.