Privatize Presidential Elections

Back when Congress was debating the unconstitutional McCain-Feingold campaign finance restrictions, Sen. John Kerry didn’t think they went far enough and wanted Congress to study increased government funding of federal election campaigns.
When a popular amendment was offered to double from $1,000 to $2,000 the amount that individuals could contribute to primary campaigns, Kerry was one of the few who voted against it. “My objective,” he told the Boston Globe at the time, “is to try to reduce the amount of money in the system.”

Now that Kerry’s is the Democratic presidential candidate facing an incumbent Republican President, he has embraced just the opposite objectives: He wants to increase the amount of money in the system. Specifically, he wants to increase the degree of private (versus public) funding of his own presidential campaign.

This craven flip-flop provides conservatives with an opportunity to make the case for real campaign reform: privatizing the whole system.

Under federal election law, the major party presidential campaigns are funded by private contributions during the primary season, and by government grants of $75 million to each party during the general-election season. Under the law, the general-election season (and thus the government-funded part of the campaign) begins on whichever day comes earlier: September 1 or the day a party officially nominates its candidate.

Operating under this law, the Republicans decided to schedule their national convention at the latest possible moment (August 30 to September 2). This decision was predicated on the assumption that President Bush would be very successful raising private donations during the primary season, and, therefore, that a long (privately funded) primary election campaign followed by a short (government-funded) general election campaign would maximize the dollars the Bush campaign could spend.

This turned out to be a shrewd calculation.

The Democrats, on the other hand, feared their candidate would run short of private money during a long primary. They scheduled their national convention in late July, five weeks before the Republican convention, in order get their hands on the $75 million in government money as early in the year as possible.

This turned out to be a stupid calculation.

Because of the new $2,000 limit that Kerry voted against, and because Kerry decided to forgo federal matching funds during the primaries (which come with mandatory spending limits), Kerry has managed to raise a whopping $117 million in private money. He is currently raising a million dollars per day in private money.

At that rate, he could raise as much as $35 million in the days between the Democratic convention in late July and the Republican convention at the end of August.

But because Kerry is scheduled to be nominated at the Democratic convention, the law says he will have to forgo the chance to raise that $35 million. That gives Bush a double advantage. Not only can the President raise and spend private money all through August, when Kerry cannot, but also the President will be able to concentrate his expenditure of the $75 million in government money over a two-month general election campaign. Kerry will have to make his $75 million federal grant last more than three months.

Had the Democrats been smarter — or had they more confidence in their ability to raise money from private citizens — they could have scheduled their convention in late August just like the Republicans. But they put their faith in government and in a government-funded presidential campaign.

That faith failed them here, as it has in so many other areas of public policy.

Typically, the Democrats are now demonstrating they are not willing to play by the election rules they themselves advocated and set. Last week, Kerry’s campaign let it be known Kerry might not formally accept the Democratic nomination at the Democratic nominating convention. Instead, he might contrive to defer making his nomination lawfully official until after August, so he can spend another five weeks raising private money.

One rub here is that, under the law, the Democrats are supposed to get $14 million in tax dollars to conduct their nominating convention in July. If Kerry will not commit to accepting his party’s nomination there, the Federal Election Commission may — and should — withhold this convention money.

But whether that money is withheld or not, Republicans and conservatives should declare that Kerry’s manipulation of federal election rules must mark the end of federal funding of federal elections.

Before adjourning this year, the Republican Congress should pass a law prohibiting government funding of future presidential campaigns. Both Bush and Kerry have done taxpayers a great favor: They have proved that neither Republicans nor Democrats need tax dollars to run their presidential campaigns. In fact, it is a hindrance to them.

The long-term solution to the Democrats’ dilemma that they may have to run their current campaign on government, rather than private, funds is obvious: Never give them government funds again.