So here's a telling moment: When Barack Obama's huge fundraising numbers came out last week, he spent most of the day ducking the media. Never mind that the good news was released as part of a carefully calculated plan to wait until everyone else had announced their totals, so Obama could have his own headline. Or that Obama's Web site featured a video touting his 100,000 donors — a huge number at this point in any campaign. Or that privately, at least, his campaign staff was downright giddy.
There was none of that out in the open. After all, it's tough to be a fundraising superstar when you spend a part of every stump speech on the campaign expressing your distaste for the influence of money in politics. Even the day before it was announced that Obama raised an astounding $25 million since January — second only to Hillary Clinton's $26 million — he complained about the grind of raising money: "Listen, I would love not to have to raise money so I could spend all my time in town hall meetings."
Instead, he's on the phone, fervently dialing for dollars. As Hillary Clinton's moneyman, Terry McAuliffe, pointedly told me: "If there's a donor I call, he's called 'em five times. He's worked very hard at this."
And that's the way it has to be. Only this year, even more so. Consider: For the first time since 1952, there's no incumbent president or vice president running. It takes money to distinguish yourself in a huge field of candidates. And there's plenty of it: In the first three months of this year, the Democratic candidates have raised almost $80 million, and the Republicans have raked in about $50 million. It's going to be the first billion-dollar presidential campaign.
We in the media, of course, love the story. It's a way to handicap the race, all the while grousing about the awful money chase. It's just too irresistible to talk and write (myself included) about the "Money Primary." First, we get to pick winners: Mitt Romney (who raised $21 million) on the GOP side; Obama for the Dems, just for coming so close to matching Hillary. And we call the losers, too. This time, it was John McCain's campaign (which raised "only" $12.5 million), a tally that inspired an internal reorganization last week after the candidate's own advisers engaged in bouts of public (and private) self-flagellation.
But wait. Maybe no one in the McCain campaign committed a crime — and we should stop beating them up. In fact, a recalibration about money is in order here: What if there is something that is different about the money chase this year — and it's something good? What if fundraising is on its way to becoming less of an elite phenomenon? Sure, the fat cats are prowling and giving generously — to promote their special interests. But half of Obama's supporters so far — 50,000 people — gave their money over the Internet, mostly in small donations. He raised $6.9 million that way, and there's lots more out there.
Sure, Howard Dean started it all — and fizzled before any primary votes were cast in 2004. But there's something ultimately democratizing about citizens logging on to give. Not to mention holding low-dollar events (say, between $25 and $100 a ticket) as a way to bring in those young-and-enthusiastic donors.
Democrats are noticing Obama. "He's really tapped into something out there," says Stephanie Cutter, a former spokesman for 2004 Democratic nominee John Kerry. "It's a new kind of politics and we'll have to see if it has the staying power."
Instead of just grumbling about money in politics, we should learn to be more specific. Some money — in small chunks — is healthy and good. The big money is what gets to all of us. Transparency is essential — as are limits on those with deep pockets who want to distort the process.
So here's an idea: Let these candidates knock themselves out and raise all the money they want— and need — to get through this expensive primary process. But then make it stop. Obama and McCain have already said they would accept public financing in the general election — if their opponent would do the same. Each candidate would get about $85 million in federal money to spend on the general election — and that's all that could be spent. This would free the candidates from endless fundraisers without killing their campaigns. More important, the voters would see the candidates perform on an even playing field.
And that's priceless.
By Gloria Borger