Michael Bloomberg's flirtation with the presidency dramatizes the breakdown of our campaign-finance system. His third-party threat is only realistic because he is able to spend a billion dollars of his own money. Even if this isn't enough to get him to the White House, it might well shift the balance between the candidates of the major parties, turning 2008 into a parody of 2000, with Plutocrat Bloomberg playing the destabilizing role of Citizen Nader.
The Supreme Court says that Bloomberg has a constitutional right to spend unlimited money out of his own pocket, but there is a perfectly practical reform that would allow ordinary citizens to strike back. Give every voter a special credit card account containing $25 that they can spend at any time during presidential election campaigns. Voters could use these cards at local ATMs whenever they liked to send their "Patriot Dollars" to the candidate they favor for president.
If 2008 is like 2004, about 120 million Americans will go to the polls. If they could also go to their ATMs, they would contribute $3 billion in federal funds to qualifying candidates. Bloomberg would be free to compete for these funds if he agreed to keep his personal spending to a modest amount within the range of mere mortals—say, $50,000, a limit already upheld by the Supreme Court. But if the New York City mayor insisted on spending his own billions, he could be constitutionally barred from the patriot market—leaving his rivals free to campaign for the financial support of their fellow citizens. Whichever option Bloomberg chose, he could not crush ordinary candidates with his overwhelming wealth. Indeed, the very existence of Patriot Dollars will force plutocrats to think twice before trying to buy their way to the presidency.
A citizens' fund for campaign contributions would also democratize money-raising for primary elections, which at present gives too much power to a small number of big givers. Even though the latest Gallup poll shows John McCain to be the favorite of 18 percent of Republicans, compared to 7 percent for Romney, McCain is on the ropes because he isn't raising enough money to keep up. The betting markets say that Romney is twice as likely to win the nomination. John Edwards' standing is also threatened by his relatively low fund-raising totals; he came up with only $14 million in the first quarter compared to Hillary Clinton's record-breaking $25 million. If the Federal Election Commission reports another disappointing performance at the end of this month, the media might declare Edwards a "second tier" candidate and deprive him of a fair chance to plead his case in Iowa by downgrading his press coverage.
It's not surprising that McCain and Edwards are having a particularly tough time raising money from big givers. McCain's advocacy of campaign reform has never been a favorite among top donors, and Edwards' sharp turn to the left isn't a big crowd-pleaser, either—at least when the crowd consists of the small group of Americans who can deliver $2,300 apiece from a bunch of friends or business associates. Our present money primary doesn't even pretend to be consistent with the one person-one vote principles that govern our democracy—and in the disconnect between poll numbers and contribution levels, we are beginning to see the distorting consequences. With big primaries pushed into February, candidates need money now to compete effectively. The current setup is a standing invitation for big givers to determine the choices that ordinary voters will be allowed to confront at the polls.