The American Prospect

What's Next For Campaign Finance?

Thomas Mann joined Abby Rapoport of The American Prospect to discuss the significance of the 2008 Presidential Election campaign finances.

Abby Rapoport: Now that soft money has been eliminated is the sheer amount of money spent something to be concerned about or is the steady growth in spending a sign of involvement?

Thomas Mann: I've never worried about the overall amount of money in campaigns. We're a huge country, a public not much engaged in politics or public affairs. It's hard to get through the din of advertising for commercial products. ... The problematics come with how it's raised and how it's spent, how it's allocated among candidates. But in this cycle, it seems to me that [the high amount of money came from] the high level of interest, the competitiveness between Clinton and Obama and basically the fact that the public financing system fell into disrepair.

It just wasn't credible in the nominating process, because the spending limits were just crazy. I mean think about it, Clinton and Obama and McCain, others would have been limited to a little over 40 million dollars in spending. Clinton and Obama each raised over 250 million dollars so far, and there's still a couple months to go.

Abby Rapoport: You were very involved in the passage of McCain-Feingold back in 2002. That bill tried to close off loopholes in an existing campaign finance system. Do you think there are more loopholes that have exposed themselves this cycle?

Thomas Mann: My inclination is not to go back in and say what can we regulate now? Mine is to say, let's acknowledge two big things happening. One, the courts have made it absolutely clear that parties, political parties, can spend as much as they want as long as they do it independently, on behalf of their candidates. Which means there's no way now that you can control spending. That's an important point to keep in mind. The second one is that we've seen just the first evidence of the possibility of a very different source of funding for campaigns -- namely small donors.

And therefore my inclination is to acknowledge the first and therefore don't get confused about what public financing can or cannot do. Rethink public financing in light of what parties can do independently and secondly begin to think creatively about building the small donor base for campaigns, not just at the presidential level, but the congressional level, state legislative level. See what it takes, maybe new public policies for tax credits, for matching funds. But I'm more inclined to think less in a regulatory restrictive way, than saying, "Hey, a new dimension is opening, campaigns are changing, more people are entering as small donors. Are there ways we can build on that?"


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Reprinted with permission from Abby Rapoport,  "What's Next for Campaign Finance," The American Prospect Online: July 24, 2008.  www.prospect.org. The American Prospect, 2000 L Street, Suite 717, Washington, DC 20036.  All rights reserved."