Hillary Clinton’s decision to decline the $83.8 million available to her in public campaign funds puts fellow Democrat presidential contender Barack Obama in a tight spot.
Obama is on the record as a firm supporter of publicly financed campaigns, but if he were to take the money, he would fall far short of the $100 million that’s expected to be needed to win a presidential primary.
To get the public money, presidential candidates must agree not to accept any private donations and to cap spending.
Obama has vocalized his disdain for fundraising often. In his book, "The Audacity of Hope," on page 134 he wrote, “Public financing of campaigns or free television and radio time could drastically reduce the constant scourging for money and the influence of special interests.”
He also sponsored a bill in the Illinois Senate to create a program to publicly finance campaigns for candidates for the Illinois Supreme Court. The measure, which died in committee, would have given $750,000 to each candidate that could be split as needed between the primary and general election contests.
Of his plan, Obama told the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin in 2002, “There is a growing danger of an erosion of the trust we hold in the courts that I think should be taken very seriously by legislators and whoever is in the governor’s mansion.”
In a lengthy November 2006 piece for Harper’s magazine, Obama complained to writer Ken Silverstein about having to please donors to get campaign cash.
“I’m just saying there are going to be points when donors have more access and are taken more into account than ordinary voters,” he said. He told Silverstein the solution was “some form of public financing for campaigns combined with some reduction in the cost of running for office; for example, providing candidates with free political advertising.”
More recently, in a January 8 press conference on ethics reform Obama told reporters his fellow Illinois Democrat senator was working on legislation for publicly funded campaigns. He said, “I know Dick Durbin is preparing a bill on public financing — that we will see campaign finance bills present and go through the regular order during the course of this session.”
Soon after, on January 20, the New York Times detailed a dispute Obama had with Sen. Chuck Schumer (D.-N.Y.) over his plan to require lobbyists to report the money they “bundle” for candidates.
Lobbyists will often gather a large number of checks from individual donors, capped at $2,100 per election, or $4,200 for both a primary and a general, and “bundle” them together to inject a surge of cash into tight races at an opportune time.
An aide to Schumer told the Times his boss backed down from opposing the measure after learning it would only increase reporting requirements for lobbyists. Obama’s provision passed as a part of the larger ethics bill, S. 1, 96-2.
Federal Elections Chairman Michael Toner has said it will likely take presidential candidates at least $100 million to be considered a serious candidate and more than $500 million to win the general election.
To take advantage of the public funding system, an eligible candidate must cap spending in primary elections to $10 million (plus a cost-of-living adjustment), limit campaign spending in each state to $200,000 (plus COLA) and use no more of $50,000 of personal money for the race.
If the candidate agrees, funds are drawn from the U.S. Treasury from the Presidential Election Fund, which is paid for by taxpayers who check off a box on their income tax forms agreeing to give $3 to the program.
For both his primary races in 2000 and 2004, President Bush declined the public money, but accepted $74.5 million for the general election. Democrat John Kerry also declined the money for his primary and took $74.5 million for the general election in 2004.
In an e-mail to the Los Angeles Times, senior Clinton adviser Howard Wolfson said Hillary would not take public funds for the primary or the general election.
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