Hillary don’t need no stinkin’ public funds

Hillary Clinton has been called, ungallantly but perhaps accurately, the 800-pound gorilla of the 2008 presidential campaign and she has stepped on, and maybe squashed, public campaign financing.

It may not be dead yet but newspaper metaphors have pretty much written off the 32-year-old system. The Washington Post saw her decision to opt out of the federal funds as heralding the demise and The New York Times as sounding the death knell.

The math shows that Clinton didn’t have to agonize over the decision. She has $14 million in the bank left over from her Senate campaign; she is expected to raise $100 million this year for the primaries; and a total of about $500 million for the entire campaign. The government could have offered her, for primary and general election campaigns both, maybe $150 million.

Republican Mitt Romney says he will go the private route; fellow Republican John McCain seems likely to; and the others are surely considering it. The ability of political fundraisers to shake the money tree has far outstripped the government’s ability to cajole the taxpayers into marking the $3 check-off that funds public financing.

Whether the demise of public financing is good or bad depends largely where one sits. It was enacted in 1974 in revulsion at the corruption of President Nixon’s 1972 campaign. And it worked in the sense that the distribution of federal funds was honest and fair. It did not, as promised, keep out special interest money, whose donors found innovative ways around the laws, first “soft money” and then 527 organizations.

The public system does give lesser known candidates a break in the primaries by allowing them to build up a war chest through matching grants to what they raise privately. But all elected politics is inherently unfair in that candidates with name recognition and big bucks have a huge head start.

Regulating campaign contributions at the source is constitutionally tricky because the Supreme Court has ruled, rightly, that the contributions are a form of protected political speech.

Everybody decries the influence of “big money” in politics but in the broadest sense, how big is it really? The 2008 campaign to run the world’s most powerful democracy and largest economy is estimated to cost $1 billion. On a per capita basis, that’s about $3.30 for each of us.