Dean Might Do In Campaign Financing

John Samples is director of the Center for Representative Government at the Cato Institute.

Liberal Democrats don’t usually declare a government program dead. Yet Howard Dean may be doing just that, and Americans owe him a vote of thanks.

Dean is asking his supporters to approve, by an e-mail vote, his plan to forgo public financing of his primary campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. A “yes” vote would make him the first Democrat to run without the help of taxpayers since public campaign financing was established in 1976. And that could sound the death knell for a useless system.

Dean has concluded that accepting public money for the primaries would leave him with few resources after he got the nomination. He has decided he must be free of the restraints that come with taxpayer financing of his primary campaign to go up against President Bush’s ample war chest.

Congress created the presidential funding system in 1974 after the resignation of President Nixon. Advocates managed to convince Americans that private financing of campaigns had resulted in the break-ins and political espionage undertaken by the Nixon White House. They offered taxpayer financing to presidential candidates in the primaries and in the general election, along with subsidizing the national conventions of the two major parties. They claimed public funding would prevent corruption, restore citizens’ faith in government, foster electoral competition and increase citizen participation in funding presidential bids.

The program had one other purpose. The presidential elections from 1960 to 1972 had seen a rapidly growing gap in party fund-raising, to the detriment of the Democrats. The Democrats, however, enjoyed an overwhelming majority in Congress. It was no surprise, then, that the funding system mandated equal spending by the two major party candidates in the general election. Such equality greatly improved the outlook for Democratic candidates in 1976 and thereafter.

However, Dean must think the program’s constraints now outweigh any advantage. By going outside the system, Dean also makes it difficult, if not impossible, for other candidates to stay within the system and its spending limits. This will ultimately destroy presidential public funding or turn it into a zombie program -- alive but with all serious candidates forgoing taxpayer financing.

We won’t lose anything worth saving. The presidential program has not fulfilled its goals. Consider corruption and citizen distrust of government. Since public financing began, the National Election Study’s trust-in-government index has twice (1980 and 1994) been lower than it was in the Watergate year of 1974. More Americans also believed that “quite a few” government officials were crooked after the elections of 1984, 1988 and 1992, according to another NES survey.

The presidential funding program has not increased electoral competition compared with the system of private financing it replaced. We have seen fewer candidates in the party presidential primaries since 1976 than in elections before that time. The two most successful independent candidates for the presidency of the last 50 years -- George Wallace in 1968 and H. Ross Perot in 1992 -- both ran without public backing. On the other side, taxpayers have had to give millions of dollars to political extremists like Lyndon LaRouche and Lenora Fulani.

Finally, and most important, surveys indicate that Americans simply do not like public financing of campaigns in general and the presidential program in particular. Participation in the tax form check-off has dropped precipitously since 1982. Currently, just a shade over 10% of Americans fill in the box. American taxpayers have spent $2 billion on presidential public funding since 1976. They have received little for their money.

If Dr. Dean forgoes public funding and kills the program, it will be one kind of physician- assisted euthanasia that all taxpayers should support.