Obama's haul was nonetheless impressive, but this seemingly undermines his rationale for refusing public funding for the general election phase of the campaign. He argued that his small donor base was the virtual equivalent of public funding. Admittedly, campaign finance reform is probably low on the incoming president's priority list, but Obama has repeatedly committed to fixing the campaign finance system, seeking a greater role for public matching funds and potentially free mandated broadcast time on television and radio.
He proved a prolific fundraiser, adeptly using the Internet to bring in a steady cash flow that bankrolled his multistate organization that flooded the airwaves and went door-to-door to dramatically alter the complexion of the electoral map. McCain simply couldn't compete as he chose to accept federal matching money and was restricted to the $84 million allotment during the final two months of the campaign. It begs to question why the President-elect would tamper with a system that served him so well.
Perhaps reform in the Obama Administration will take the form of full disclosure with restrictions on giving from registered lobbyists. This is essentially the system his campaign pursued, although it sometimes delayed disclosure of bundlers (fundraisers who raise large combined sums of money for a single candidate). McCain was guilty on this count, too. Full disclosure might also include those who give less than $200, as there exists some concerns about the authenticity and even the citizenship of these donors.
The existing system is a product of the post-Watergate era, where individuals are limited in the amount of money they can donate in a given cycle to a specific candidate (currently $2,300 each for the primary and general election campaigns). Individuals may give to political parties in larger sums, and McCain used coordinated expenditures with the Republican National Committee to stay above water when competing against the Obama juggernaut. McCain's own campaign finance reform legislation has crumbled slowly as the Supreme Court has limited its restrictions on issue ads and the so-called Millionaire's amendment that raised the the individual donation bar if a self-financed challenger spent significant sums of his own money (Obama benefited from this in his initial Senate campaign).
Some experts have concluded that the paradigm that places public financing at one end of the spectrum, and First Amendment free speech protests of any restrictions at the other is tired and should be discarded. They argue that the Internet has forever transformed the campaign finance landscape, introducing small donors to the scene and squashing fears that big-money interests dominate our national politics. By maintaining sensible limitations on individual donations and insisting on full and immediate disclosure, the existing apparatus is not so much broken but merely in need of "seasonal maintenance."
Given the gravity of the current economic crisis, the way in which we finance our campaigns is but a footnote to the pressing agenda of the President-elect. Before long, however, our campaign finance laws should endure their "periodic checkup," and a clean bill of health will come with at minimum minor tweaks to the system. Transparency in government and campaigns is critical to maintaining the public's trust in our leaders and the system they preside over. President Obama should use his credibility in the area of campaign finance to make our laws relevant in the 21st Century.
For more information on this issue, I encourage you to read two recent conference reports generated by the McCormick Foundation. The first, Civic Disengagement in our Democracy, views the financing of campaigns within the context of five issues that reduce civic participation by our general populace. The second, Freedom of Speech and the Press in the Information Age, presents the First Amendment free speech concerns of restrictions on political donations alongside what many consider the best interests of democracy. It is followed by a lesson plan for high school students that introduces them to key concepts and terms related to campaign finance, and then asks them to explore the implications of financial donations solicited by elected officials.