The wise men (and women) of the New York Times editorial board look upon the decline of Watergate-era campaign finance reforms and rejoice! Wait, no, sorry—I rejoice. The NYT reacts like a Viking widow tossing herself on the beach and clutching sand as her husband's corpse is doused and torched.
Public financing had worked well for decades, inviting fresh arrays of candidates. But it was left half-dead in 2004 when President Bush and Senator John Kerry declined the $44 million subsidy for the presidential primaries. This freed them to raise more than $200 million each in private, unlimited money. They did opt for public subsidies in the general election, accepting $74 million each as the spending limit. But that formula is expected to be extinct in 2008 as the finalists wage a far more expensive campaign — one that could hit $1 billion.
There's a tiny fact left out here—the first 2004 candidate to withdraw from public financing was Howard Dean. He had realized that the limitations of public financing would actually make his campaign much less democratic and responsive to his supporters than scrapping the subsidy and opening the online floodgates. He discovered that citizens, given a streamlined donation process and a candidate/cause that inspires them, can vastly out-donate bundlers and "special interests."
The breakdown of the public system need not have happened if Congress had acted to update the formula to keep pace with campaign inflation. Larger spending limits and subsidies are needed, along with a more generous checkoff donation than the current $3 per taxpayer.
What a terrific solution! Hey, I'm having trouble downloading the new Warcraft mod to play on my abacus; perhaps I need more expensive beads?
Seriously, the Watergate campaign finance rules were always lousy. They led directly to the culture of Bush pioneers and union bundlers that so terrify CFR nags. Every attempt to "clean up" the system with regulation leads to another loophole—*cough* 527s *cough*—that then has to be regulated so that our system can finally be clean. The pattern of reform-loophole-crisis-reform never becomes obvious to NYT-style reformers.