- The Washington Times - Monday, December 8, 2008

President-elect Barack Obama’s record-shattering $750 million campaign fundraising total spurred renewed calls to reform the public financing system, but Washington insiders wonder whether Capitol Hill Democrats have the political will to do it after winning the White House under current rules.

“The Democratic leadership may decide that Obama is better off without an overhaul of the public financing system,” said Michael E. Toner, a former chairman of the Federal Election Commission. “These electoral calculations are never far from anybody’s mind in the Congress.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada declined to say whether campaign finance reform would be on the Democrats’ agenda next year.

“We have many issues that are priorities,” Pelosi spokesman Nadeam Elshami said. “She has always been a supporter of public financing. But our first order of business will be dealing with the economic crisis.”

Mr. Obama, the first presidential candidate to opt out of public financing for the general election since the system was established in 1974, raked in twice as much cash as Republican nominee John McCain. He even surpassed the combined total raised by President Bush and Democrat John Kerry - $653 million - in the 2004 primary and general election campaigns.

The feat is considered a death knell for public financing. No major party candidate is likely to take public funds that effectively cap spending at $84 million in the general election and potentially suffer the same huge disadvantage as Mr. McCain, who is a chief architect of current campaign finance law.

At the height of the fall campaign, Mr. Obama outspent his rival 4-to-1.

“In this day and age, $84 million simply isn’t enough for a presidential campaign,” said Massie Ritsch of the Center for Responsive Politics, a research group that tracks money in U.S. politics.

He said Mr. Obama not only forged a path for future candidates to run solely on private money but showed that a presidential candidate can forgo public financing “without taking a lot of heat.”

Mr. Obama brushed off criticism for breaking a promise to take public financing in the general election, and it never became much of a political issue as he continued throughout the campaign to break money-raising records.

This was accomplished, in part, by the Obama campaign’s emphasis on the role of small donors, saying $20 or $100 contributions from Mr. or Mrs. Main Street represented their own sort of public financing. The campaign said nearly 4 million contributors opened their wallets for Mr. Obama.

But 74 percent of Mr. Obama’s campaign cash came from large donors, people who shelled out $200 or more, and nearly half of his donors gave $1,000 or more, an analysis by the nonpartisan Campaign Finance Institute showed.

He may have had more small donors than any other candidate in history, but their support amounted to about 26 percent of Mr. Obama’s total haul - about the same as Mr. Bush had in 2004.

During the campaign, the Obama team also weathered criticism for not disclosing the identities of small donors and reports that the campaign took money charged to untraceable prepaid debit cards.

The campaign nevertheless was so successful deflecting criticism about fundraising and the decision to quit the public financing system that Mr. Obama broached the issue himself just before Election Day, promising to champion reform of the system - words that continue to thrill Washington watchdog groups.

“I think that was really big,” said David Arkush, director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch, which works to expose the harmful impact of money in politics and advocates campaign finance reform.

He said Mr. Obama’s election “actually bodes better than most people think for public financing of elections,” adding that the president-elect’s ability to tap so many small donors and repeat donors could be a model for a new system.

“The model that will make the most sense going forward is small-donor empowerment, that sort of seizes on and builds on the type of success Obama had,” Mr. Arkush said.

A popular proposal would harness small-donor power by lowering the limit on contributions and matching each contribution with taxpayer money, perhaps at a 2-1, 3-1 or 4-1 match.

David Donnelly, national campaigns director for the watchdog group Public Campaign Action Fund, said the promise for reform was gleaned from what went right for Mr. Obama, not what went wrong under current law, such as the continuing influence of big donors in elections.

“What is new is the explosion of small donors. The sheer number of people is an encouraging sign,” he said. “The outrage will be if we don’t use this moment to fix the system. … My outrage will be saved for the moment the president-elect says, ‘I don’t want to have public financing reform.’ ”

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