Barack Obama has decided to take a pass on $84 million in public campaign money because it would limit how much he can spend on his bid to become president. He's no fool. Obama has raised an unprecedented $265 million, mostly from small, online contributions; his presumed opponent, John McCain, has raised $115 million.
McCain says Obama has reneged on a promise to participate in the public campaign finance system if McCain would do the same. Actually, Obama had promised to participate if he and McCain could agree on ground rules to tighten the loopholes that make a mockery of the spending caps. Obama says he couldn't get McCain to engage in a serious discussion of that proposal. That's because McCain's no fool either.
The public campaign funding system was meant to protect the integrity of presidential elections by reducing candidates' dependence on private donors to whom they would later be beholden. The money for this comes from the $3 donations made by taxpayers who voluntarily check a box on their federal income tax returns. Candidates who accept the money agree to abide by the spending restrictions.
The system was supposed to level the playing field so that candidates without huge fundraising machines or personal fortunes could still run viable campaigns. In practice, it ensures that second- and third-tier candidates can indulge their presidential fantasies at taxpayer expense before fading away. Those who remain in the race can get around the spending caps easily and legally.
That's what Obama was talking about when he accused McCain of "gaming the system." The McCain campaign and the Republican National Committee - which is allowed to contribute to presidential campaigns, as is its Democratic counterpart - are supported by lobbyists and special interests, Obama said. He also faulted McCain for not stopping attacks by so-called 527 groups, which operate independently of the campaign.
Obama says he believes in "a robust system of public financing of elections," and is opting out because America doesn't have one. But his own campaign has demonstrated why we don't need it at all. Like Howard Dean in 2004, Obama has shown that a resourceful grass-roots outreach can be an enormously effective fundraiser. Why shouldn't a candidate be free to raise and spend that money?
A modern presidential campaign costs a lot of money, and taxpayers shouldn't be expected to pay for it, voluntarily or involuntarily. But the solution isn't to set some arbitrary spending limit. To get elected, a candidate must explain to voters why he or she should be president. Spending caps muzzle that message - especially in the late stages of a campaign, when it matters most. A lid on spending is a lid on free speech, and voters are the real losers.
If Obama is financed by regular folks and McCain is financed by special interests, well, let's hash that out in the campaign. McCain will have a retort to that.
Obama is the first candidate to reject public campaign funds in a general election since the system began in 1976. But primary candidates have been taking a pass in increasing numbers. And taxpayers are opting out, too: Fewer than 10 percent now check the box on their 1040 form, compared with 28 percent in 1980.
So almost everybody agrees, but almost nobody wants to say it: This complicated, convoluted system is a loser.
Obama says he wants to reform the system. So does McCain. What's the point? Government rules that limit spending on the message don't clean up elections; they just stifle free speech. The best way to fix this system is to scrap it.