Washington First, it was President Bush, scorning public financing of his preconvention campaign and unleashing his fund-raisers to collect something close to $200 million for a head start on his bid for a second term. Then former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, with his Internet army of small donors, opted out of the limits attached to public financing and declared he would try to match Bush dollar for dollar. And then Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, married to the wealthy heiress of the Heinz fortune, announced he would reject the taxpayer subsidies as well.
Seven others in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination are still operating within the framework of the system of tax-supported and spending-limited campaigns that began in 1976. But the precedent has now been set on both sides -- with Bush and Steve Forbes having gone solo in 2000 and Bush again this year. So one has to assume that in future years, more candidates will follow the Bush-Dean-Kerry pattern, if the rules remain the same.
Those rules needed revision even before this. As I wrote recently, the nonpartisan Campaign Finance Institute made a compelling case that the current limits on primary election spending (approximately $45 million) are unreasonably low, the state-by-state spending ceilings are so impractical they invite evasion, and the taxpayer checkoff that provides the financing is badly in need of expansion.
The chances of any or all of these changes being approved in a Republican-controlled Congress are not great; most GOP senators and representatives have been skeptical about publicly financed campaigns, and some are outright hostile to them.
So what exactly has been lost if the presidential nomination campaigns are stripped of their element of public financing?
Not that much.
Public financing has two rationales -- reducing corruption or the appearance of corruption, and equalizing the playing field among the contenders.
The current system, which offers federal matching for up to $250 of individual contributions, provides a healthy incentive for seeking and giving small contributions -- and a reward that could be almost one-third of the $45 million allowed for the primary campaign.
But it does not and cannot even out the resources available to contestants for the nomination. Early on, Kerry with his establishment support, and Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, a favorite of his fellow trial lawyers, far outdistanced their rivals in collecting campaign cash.
When Dean developed his Internet appeal to anti-war Democrats, he zoomed past both of them. But serious rivals such as Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri and Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut are at a serious financial disadvantage, and would remain so even if Dean and Kerry stayed inside the system.
You cannot equalize financial support in the primaries any more than you can equalize speaking ability, organizational skills or television appeal
What about preventing corruption? Dean has an irrefutable answer. He has collected an average of $77 from over 200,000 donors. No one can suppose he is in hock to any one of them -- or any clique. Kerry is in a position to tap his personal wealth and to borrow against joint property held with his wife, Teresa Heinz, an advantageous situation but not a corrupting one.
Bush presents a harder case, because he has organized an efficient system for collecting the maximum $2,000 individual contributions allowed by current law. But the best answer to the practice of "bundling" high-dollar gifts is to identify the key collection agents. Ruth Marcus, The Washington Post editorial writer who has made a specialty of campaign finance, has pressed all the campaigns to identify their fund-raisers -- the people to whom a candidate might very well feel obligated. The Bush campaign has complied, and Marcus has made headway among the Democrats as well, with Kerry, Dean and retired Gen. Wesley Clark all cooperating.
So far, Bush has indicated he will once again accept full public financing of his general election campaign, and indications are that the Democratic nominee will do so as well. That spares them the necessity of fund raising in September and October, when campaign time is better spent on stumping the country.
But no one should think it assures equality or ends the potential for big contributors' influence. The parties can raise money on their own, and since the McCain-Feingold law -- now before the Supreme Court -- has limited the size of gifts they can receive, a variety of semi-official vehicles have sprung up to take big-dollar contributions. Liberal financier George Soros has pledged up to $15 million to two avowedly anti-Bush political movements.
In a nation as open as this one, with the constitutional guarantee of free expression we enjoy, it is virtually impossible to shut down the flow of money from the private sector to the political world. The effort to do so leads only to frustration.
David Broder is a columnist for the Washington Post.