Howard Dean and President Bush may be ideological opposites, but they are united in exposing the weaknesses of the presidential public campaign financing system.
Dean announced last week that for the duration of the presidential primaries he was abandoning the Watergate-era funding system, which is financed by a $3 checkoff on personal income tax forms. Dean is the first Democrat ever on that path, but he follows in Bush's footsteps. Bush raised more than $100 million in 2000 and is on target to raise at least $175 million for his reelection, amounts that public financing would not begin to match.
Congress created the financing system in 1974, the year Gerald R. Ford took office when Richard M. Nixon resigned in disgrace. It provides candidates almost $20 million of public money in the primary, but limits overall spending to $49 million. The big change since 1974 is the timing of primaries. Back then, California's presidential primary was in June, and mattered. Today, nominations are decided by March, yet aren't official until the party conventions in July and August. There's a lot of spending to be done in between.
With Bush not having to abide by the spending limits, a Democratic candidate who did would run out of money and sit high and dry until the official nomination in July, while the Bush campaign launched a barrage of ads. A mini-version of this happened in 1996 when Bill Clinton, facing no primary opponents to his reelection, watched Republican Sen. Bob Dole spend like crazy to sew up the nomination by April. The Clinton campaign could put out waves of ads while Dole waited, fuming, for the convention.
The spending cap for the general election is $75 million, and Bush is expected to accept those limits in 2004.
Neither Bush nor Dean should be blamed for responding to the ineffectiveness of a system that hasn't been amended since 1974. It's fine to blame the parties. But if they won't change, the system must. The $49-million cap should be doubled. At the same time, candidates who reject public funds and spending limits for the primary should be denied funds for the general election.
Both parties have incentives to resurrect public campaign funding. Opting out may work for the GOP this time, but not necessarily for the next presidential election if there's a bruising Republican primary while the Democrats settle early on a candidate.
Bush signed the McCain-Feingold Act staunching soft money, the unregulated contributions that flowed to political parties, in March 2002. Now he and Congress need to solve the other glaring problem in campaign finance. Instead of destroying the presidential financing system, Bush's and Dean's actions could end up revitalizing it.