Paying to be president

John Edwards is pledging to use public money during the state primaries.

Struggling Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards tried to reinvigorate his campaign last week and raised ethical questions about the current condition of political campaigns. In an election cycle that began remarkably early and has featured record-shattering fund-raising, Edwards has indicated his intent to use public financing for the remainder of his primary campaigning. Presidential candidates have shunned public financing because of the number of restrictions it places on spending and fund-raising; soliciting donations is working quite well for the high-flying campaigns of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Edwards, however, could benefit financially by using public money, and he is also trying to posture himself as a more ethical alternative to other candidates.

It is clear that this recent announcement from Edwards is being used to garner attention and potentially boost his financial vitality. Certainly it’s no coincidence that his sudden change of heart came immediately before revealing another disappointing quarter of fundraising. Still, Edwards’ stand could put pressure on other candidates and make this a more important campaign issue.

Edwards’ commitment might not be absolute (if nominated, he probably would not continue to use public money), but it brings up an important discussion. As campaigns become more extravagant, pervasive and protracted, we are cementing this country’s government as one of superstar millionaires. This year in particular has emphasized this point. The sudden condensation of state primaries is shifting the edge to candidates who can quickly make a name for themselves, and a large pocketbook is essential.

In its current form, the public financing realm is full of complexities and potential loopholes, but it’s an avenue that is worth exploring. Public financing could increase the emphasis on issues and candidate personality instead of money.

The current presidential campaign system is leading us to a government of celebrity families and millionaires (the Bush and Clinton families are approaching dynasty status). A little reform is needed, and perhaps tighter campaign spending laws would decrease the number of political ads to which we’re subjected.