Commentary

Howard Dean Signs the Death Certificate for Taxpayer Financing

This article was published in the Los Angeles Times, Nov. 7, 2003.

Liberal Democrats don’t usually declare a government program dead. Yet Howard Dean just did. He has declared an end to the long and useless life of taxpayer financing of presidential campaigns. Americans owe him a vote of thanks.

Dean has decided to forego public financing of his primary campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. He will be the first Democrat to run without the help of the taxpayers. Dean has asked his supporters to approve, by an email vote, his decision to run without public money. Like all good politicians, however, Dean wouldn’t have asked for a vote if he didn’t know how it would turn out.

Congress created the presidential funding system in 1974 after the resignation of President Richard Nixon because of Watergate. Advocates of the system managed to convince Americans that private financing of campaigns had caused the break-ins and political espionage undertaken by the Nixon White House. They offered taxpayer financing to presidential candidates in the primaries and in the general election, along with subsidizing the national conventions of the two major parties. Advocates claimed presidential public funding would prevent corruption, restore citizen-faith in government, foster electoral competition, and increase citizen-participation in funding presidential bids.

The presidential public funding program had one other purpose that its advocates did not mention much. The presidential elections from 1960 to 1972 had seen a rapidly growing gap in party fundraising to the detriment of the Democrats. The Democrats, however, enjoyed an overwhelming majority in Congress. It was no surprise, then, that the presidential public funding system mandated equal spending by the two major party candidates in the general election. Such equality of outlays greatly improved the outlook for Democratic candidates in 1976 and thereafter.

Why then has the Democrat Howard Dean “killed” the presidential program? The program has done little harm to Republican candidates for the presidency. Dean has concluded that accepting public money for the primaries will leave him with few resources after he gets the nomination. He correctly expects that President Bush will have ample funding to criticize the nominee when the results of the Democratic primaries become clear. To fight his good fight next spring, Dean has decided he must be free of the restraints that come with taxpayer financing of his primary campaign.

By going outside the system, Dean makes it difficult, if not impossible, for other candidates to stay within the system and its limits on spending. Such competition will ultimately destroy presidential public funding or turn it into a zombie program — apparently alive but actually dead as all serious candidates forego taxpayer financing.

Dean is doing the rest of us a favor. The presidential program has not fulfilled its goals. Consider the problem of corruption and citizen distrust of government. Since public financing of presidential campaigns began, the National Election Studies’ trust in government index has twice (in 1980 and 1994) been lower than it was in the Watergate year of 1974; on three separate occasions since 1976 (in 1978, 1990, and 1992) public trust has been exactly as low as it was in the depths of the Watergate crisis. According to another National Election Studies survey, more Americans also believed that “quite a few” government officials were crooked after the elections of 1984, 1988, and 1992. In fact, the “quite a few” response rose continuously from 1984 to 1994, a period that saw three presidential elections funded by taxpayers. The public financing era has seen four years (1980, 1990, 1992, 1994) where more Americans believed “quite a few” government officials were crooked than so believed in 1974, the peak year of Watergate.

The presidential program has not increased electoral competition compared to the system of private financing it replaced. We have seen fewer candidates in the party presidential primaries since 1976 than in elections before that time. The two most successful independent candidates for the presidency of the last 50 years — George Wallace and H. Ross Perot — both ran without public backing. On the other side, taxpayers have had to give millions of dollars to political extremists like Lyndon LaRouche and Lenora Fulani.

Finally, and most important, Americans simply do not like public financing of campaigns in general and the presidential program in particular. Participation in the tax form check-off has dropped like a stone since 1982. Currently, just a shade over 10 percent of Americans participate in the check-off. If current trends continue, only 5 percent of Americans will check the box by 2008. American taxpayers have spent $2 billion on presidential public funding since 1976. They have received little, if anything, for their money. If Howard Dean’s decision to forego public funding kills the program, it will be one kind of physician-assisted euthanasia that all taxpayers should support.

John Samples is director of the Center for Representative Government at the Cato Institute.