Bob Bauer makes a respectable case for “clean elections”

Writing today at his blog More Soft Money Hard Law, uber-campaign finance attorney  Bob Bauer discusses so-called "clean elections" or "public financing" of campaigns, what we here at CCP generally call taxpayer-funded political campaigns or welfare for politicians (sometimes we even use terms like "fraud" and "scam," if the rhetoric from advocates of "clean elections" schemes seems particularly outlandish and unsubstantiated at the moment).

Bob singles out CCP for our critiques of "clean elections" programs, noting our tendency to "dwell on their failure to deliver transformative changes in government." His observation is fully justified, and he himself recognizes why our "dwelling" on this failure is appropriate – because the advocates of these programs almost always sell them as capable of, indeed certain to, deliver "transformative changes in government."

Bob himself, however, is far more clear-eyed on the subject:

A public financing system is not likely to transform government… [nor will it] drive private money out of the so-called "system"…  

Public financing systems launched or defended on grand promises are certain to run into trouble. 

He also identifies clearly the problem that advocates of these programs face:

And this is the beginning of a dilemma for public financing supporters: legislature of this nature is not easily enacted or sustained without making the case for rich benefits.  The case is made boldly, in expansive terms; but the case boldly, expansively made is open to damaging attack, sooner or later.

In plainer words, too many advocates of these programs are selling it as a Porsche, while in the eyes of detractors it’s clearly a Trabant and the most optimistic assessment by realistic proponents (such as Bob) would be that it’s an Escort – somewhat useful, with pluses and minuses, but it does a few things well and doesn’t get in the way of too much.

A few of the things Bob identifies that these Trabant/Escort programs might do well:   

it may contribute, in ways not reliably measured, to sounder government, operating in subtle conjunction with other factors… To some degree, public financing is a choice candidates might make to escape a larger or smaller share of the fundraising burden and to free time for contact with voters and the business of government.  To some degree, it provides seed capital to candidates who need time to demonstrate their promise.  It can be seen to represent a public investment, not exclusive in character, in campaign financing alternatives that will include, inevitably, a substantial private component, but are not for that reason gravely deficient.

Bauer concludes by noting:

How much of an investment the public will be prepared to make on a realistic basis remains to be seen.  But the case for public financing can be a strong one, especially if it is realistic…

Although CCP and Bob part ways on the usefulness and appropriateness of using taxpayer dollars to fund political campaigns, there is little doubt that the "modest" case for "clean elections" that he outlines has the supreme virtue of being honest, in recognizing the limited (at best) benefits that such a program might provide. A case made on Bauer’s points could indeed be a strong one (as would be the opposing case, of course).

If the proponents of "clean elections" were to abandon their unsubstantiated claims and promises of transformative government, and instead embrace the reality that Bob has so clearly identified, the debate over these programs would be far different. But so long as Public Citizen, Common Cause, and others talk about taxpayer-funded political campaigns as "the reform that makes all other reforms possible," we will continue to report on the complete failure of these programs to achieve that goal.

The Center for Competitive Politics is now the Institute for Free Speech.