November 17, 2003

Howard Dean Signs the Death Certificate for Taxpayer Financing

John Samples says taxpayer financing of presidential campaigns may be coming to an end due to Howard Dean's decision:

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.


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.