More than 30 years ago, following the Watergate scandal, the US provided for the partial public funding of presidential elections. Candidates would get public money to supplement cash they raised in return for accepting curbs on their spending.
It worked, after a fashion: since 1976, every presidential candidate has taken public money for his general election campaign. Last week Barack Obama announced he would not. This understandable though hypocritical decision further undermines the country’s campaign finance rules. In the end, however, this may be no bad thing.
Mr Obama’s fund-raising prowess means he can spurn public money with strings attached. Left alone, he will have an enormous financial advantage over John McCain. He would have been foolish, no doubt, to surrender this – a rare prospect for a Democrat, since Republican contenders have typically been better funded. Unfortunately, before Mr Obama discovered his Midas touch, he said he would accept public funds and called for the system to be upheld.
[…] Yet nobody should regret the further erosion of the broader US campaign finance regime. This is a bewildering mess, fashioned by a Supreme Court leaning one way (in a series of less than lucid decisions) and Congress (in the odd spasm of activity) leaning the other, both their efforts subverted by exceptions and loopholes. Public financing has not restrained the flow of money. And a system that pivots on distinctions as false as that between “issue advertising” and “electioneering” as upholding an important principle deserves ridicule.
What counts is to deny undue influence to wealth and power, which means preventing politicians from putting themselves under obligation. In this, openness has achieved more than detailed rules; the more so now it is empowered by technology. Disclosure plus the internet makes it easy to track who owes what to whom. And it is the internet that has enabled Mr Obama to raise hundreds of millions of dollars – in small donations from millions of Americans. With transparency and dilution, the rest hardly matters, and money in politics need not be feared.