It's a week before Valentine's Day in a non-election year and already events are putting a spotlight on public financing of campaigns, as candidates for President are announcing whether or not they will take clean money and the spending limits that come with them. US Sen. Hilary Clinton says no, she'll eschew public funds and instead rely on private and special interest donors. US Sen. John McCain, chief sponsor of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, says he's not sure. And Illinois' own US Sen. Barack Obama is asking the Federal Elections Commission if he can take special interest funds now and change his mind later.
USA Today offers a good overview of why public financing is worth supporting. Candidates may be able to raise hundreds of millions in voluntary donations from private interests, but at what cost? As the paper asks, "will these folks expect access and favors for themselves and their clients? Does anyone really think otherwise?"
Here in Illinois the focus for public financing has been on the judiciary. Judicial elections really are different from legislative or executive elections, and in a state where litigants and their representatives have ponied up over $9 million for one seat on the Supreme Court, justice really is at stake. Today's Daily Herald declares public financing "a sound proposal." They might prefer merit selection, but, they continue, "merit selection is not on the near horizon. With the introduction of this bill, public financing and donation limits are. Lawmakers would do well to adopt this, if only as an intermediary step."
To be sure, we shouldn't give the impression that enacting public financing is a one-shot vaccine. The federal public financing system hasn't been overhauled in decades and deserves tending to. And a similar system here will need on-going care to ensure it meets the goal of providing adequate resources to credible candidates. But the alternative -- of letting special interests determine which candidates have the resources to mount a credible campaign -- is too damaging to our polity.