Spend What You Raise

To take down Bush, the Democratic frontrunners cannot afford to hold back on cash

In the crowded battle for the Democratic presidential nomination, two contenders have renounced public campaign funding this month. Former Vermont Governor Howard Dean and Senator John F. Kerry, D-Mass., recently revealed their intentions to forgo public matching funds, wisely recognizing that to beat President Bush in the general election requires spending more than $45 million before the end of July. Public funding provides only $18.7 million at most and requires that candidates limit their spending to $45 million until after the July 31 convention. But the primary race will be decided months earlier, and the Democratic nominee will need further funds to challenge Bush from April to July.

The public finance law epitomizes good sportsmanship and fair competition. The financing of this country’s electoral campaigns should continually be funded publicly as a commitment to equal expression of political visions by all viable candidates—regardless of the financial influence of their core electoral supporters. But such a noble spirit is unfortunately out of the question in the struggle against the current incumbent who, at this early date, has already exceeded his prodigious 2000 grand total of around $100 million. For the Democrats who can raise more money than would be allowed by the constraints of public financing, choosing to stay within its tight limits—delaying significant spending from the end of the primaries until after the national convention—is tantamount to giving their opponent a four-month head start. As written, public finance laws favor the incumbent more than they favor the ideals of equal expression. So while public financing is good in theory, neither Kerry nor Dean can be blamed for choosing to forgo public funds.

While both hopefuls have opted out of public funding, Kerry has also pledged to restrict his spending to the $45 million figure, but only until the last primaries in March. While it might be tempting to adhere to public financing restrictions, it will hurt the eventual nominee. All non-negative campaigning ultimately works to the Democrat’s advantage in the November election: the earlier the Democrats can build strong name- and policy-recognition among voters, the better their chances against the incumbent’s staggering momentum. Setting fundraising ability as the only bounds to spending, as Dean pledges to do, is likely a sounder strategy.

The 2004 presidential election is another defeat for public campaign financing. But in the face of the Republican fund-raising machine, which is fueled in large part by donors with pockets much deeper than the $2,000 cap on individual contributions, there is no other choice but to maximize Democratic spending ability. For the moment, Dean and Kerry are right to raise and spend as much as they can. Democrats can’t suspend their full-force pursuit of the White House in the name of public financing, even if it is a respectable and worthy ideal.