Patriot Dollars would mark a decisive advance over the existing system of federal funding initiated in the aftermath of Watergate. Congress then tried to break the domination of big money by offering presidential candidates a federal subsidy if they limited their private fund raising. If, for example, a candidate in this year's primaries restricts fund raising to $40 million, the government will match each $250 private contribution with $250 in federal funds, up to a ceiling of $20 million. While this yields a total budget of $60 million, front-runners have no incentive to accept the deal when they can raise $25 million a quarter. Once a single candidate opts out, competitors must do the same or face a crushing blitz of TV ads. While the Watergate system remains on the books, it is irrelevant in practice. Indeed, the leading candidates have already made it clear that they will also refuse federal money and rely exclusively on private financing in the general election.
Even when it was operational, the old funding scheme pushed ordinary citizens to the sidelines. The Federal Election Commission simply writes each qualifying candidate a fat check. Ordinary citizens play a minor role—they can send a few of their tax dollars to the generic presidential campaign fund by checking an appropriate box on their 1040 on April 15, but they can't choose a particular candidate as a beneficiary. Unsurprisingly, a mere 8 percent of taxpayers have bothered to check the right box in recent years, leaving only $170 million in the federal kitty. This paltry sum is insufficient to fend off a Bloomberg-style attack, even if candidates were inclined to take the federal money.
In contrast, our initiative transforms campaign finance into a vehicle for active citizenship. Voters are invited to send their $25 to the candidate of their choice at the time when it really counts. Since the system puts ordinary citizens at center stage, they will give broad support for a plan that can finally allow them to take control of campaign finance away from big givers. Their Patriot Dollars will overwhelm the $1 billion that the current crop of candidates are expected to raise during this entire campaign cycle (assuming Bloomberg stays out).
Nothing can be done in time for the current campaign for 2008. It's just too late for serious consideration, and Bush would veto such a proposal anyway. But at the very least, the present crop of candidates should be pressed to propose Patriot Dollars for 2012. The plan won't solve all our problems. It would still allow candidates to raise large sums from special interests under the McCain-Feingold rules. But it represents a practical and constitutional response to the increasing dominance of big money. $3 billion is a small price for democratizing presidential politics.