McCain On Obama’s Fundraising

Here’s John McCain’s response to Barack Obama’s fundraising totals for September (h/t):

“I’m saying that history shows us where unlimited amounts of money are in political campaigns, it leads to scandal.

I’m not comparing it with — I’m saying this is the first since the Watergate scandal that any candidate for president of the United States, a major party candidate, has broken the pledge to take public financing.

We enacted those reforms because of that scandal. We know that we let unlimited amounts of money — in this case $200 million unreported — and there’s already been stories of people who have made small contributions multiple times and all that.

I’m saying it’s laying a predicate for the future that can be very dangerous. History has shown that.”

It seems pretty clear to me that McCain is saying this because he wants to plant the idea that there’s something scandalous or unsavory about Obama’s fundraising in people’s minds. However, it’s worth noticing what point he might have been trying to make, had he actually meant what he said.

Allowing “unlimited amounts of money” into political campaigns could mean one of two things. First, it might mean allowing individual donors to give as much money as they want. This is what has caused scandals in the past: when Nixon turned out to have gotten $2 million in campaign pledges from milk producers and milk support prices went up shortly thereafter, for instance. But that’s illegal now: as a result of those scandals, there are strict limits on what an individual can give to a political campaign. So presumably that’s not what McCain is taking about.

On the other hand, allowing “unlimited amounts of money” into political campaigns could mean something different: that even if individuals’ contributions are limited, the total amount that candidates raise by getting donations below the limit from large numbers of people leads to scandal.

That’s the only way in which Obama’s contributions are “unlimited”. (Or, more precisely, limited by the number of US citizens multiplied by the amount each of them can legally donate.) So it’s worth asking: why does John McCain think that that would lead to scandal? Does allowing more and more people to donate below the legal limit lead to scandal? If so, how? If anything, it would seem to decrease the possibility of scandal: people often worry that politicians will listen more closely to their contributors than to ordinary citizens, but the more ordinary citizens contribute, the less likely that becomes. Likewise, a candidate who got only a small number of contributions might not want to alienate those few people who donate to her campaign, but a candidate who gets lots of donations is, by definition, less dependent on any individual donor for contributions. So that part makes no sense.

What alternative would McCain propose? Personally, I favor public financing of elections, along with some amount of free air time for candidates with support above a given threshold. (The savings of candidates’ time alone would make this worthwhile, I think: I’d rather politicians focus on their jobs and engaging with the voters, and forget about raising money.) However, I don’t think that’s a view that’s likely to find favor in the Republican party.

Would McCain rather the number of donors who can give to a candidate be limited, so that once you reach a certain amount of money, no one else can contribute? Or that pubic financing be mandatory, so that no one can contribute, and a fixed amount of money is given out by the government? If so, he should advocate that directly, and take on those within his party who would see either option as a limit on freedom of speech. But he shouldn’t talk blithely about scandal unless he’s willing to explain both how that scandal might come about, and what alternative arrangement he supports.

Our ideas can save democracy... But we need your help! Donate Now!