Barack Obama's rejection of public financing for the general election confronts us with a stark choice: Rethink the system or let it die. The current program has failed to generate sustained public support for good reason. It puts citizens on the sidelines and merely involves the bureaucratic transfer of funds from the Treasury to candidates who voluntarily forego private money. Given the lack of direct citizen involvement, it's not surprising that fewer than 10 percent of Americans support the campaign fund by checking off a box on their tax forms.
It is tempting, but wrong, to suppose that Obama's success in mobilizing small donors shows that a deeper reform isn't necessary. Few candidates will be able to match his success, and most small donations come from relatively rich people. A study of $100 contributions in 2005 showed that more than half came from individuals earning $75,000 to $250,000 at a time when the average income was $46,000.
But Obama's success does show that ordinary Americans want a system that places them at the very center of campaign finance. For more than a decade, we have been working with many other scholars and activists to develop just such a paradigm. Under our proposal, Congress would provide each voter with a special credit-card account containing up to 50 "patriot dollars" that they could spend only on federal election campaigns.
Armed with their cards, voters could send their patriot dollars to favored candidates and political organizations at times of their own choosing. They would also be free to give private money, subject to the limitations of the McCain-Feingold Law. But patriotic finance would push the system much closer to the ideal of equal citizenship that prevails on Election Day, when each of us casts an equal ballot regardless of our private wealth.
About 120 million Americans went to the polls in 2004. If they also had a chance to vote with patriot dollars, they would have injected $6 billion of federal funds into the campaign -- greatly diluting the $3 billion of private contributions spent by all candidates for federal office during that election. That would be a small price to pay to democratize the system.
Our plan would also impose effective restraints on super-rich candidates. Plutocrats would be given a choice: Either accept a stringent limitation on self-financing or forego access to the pool of 6 billion patriot dollars. Even billionaires will have an overwhelming incentive to opt into the program lest their opponents get all the patriot dollars that would otherwise go to them. Why spend $500 million of your own money if this will allow your closest rival to raise hundreds of millions of patriot dollars that you might have obtained by operating within the public system?
This point gains added importance now that the Supreme Court has struck down the "millionaire's amendment" to McCain-Feingold. Justice Alito, writing for the majority, held that it is unconstitutional to relax contribution limits for ordinary candidates facing rich rivals who reject spending limits. Our plan creates a massive incentive for plutocrats to limit their private spending and join the public funding system, without raising similar constitutional problems.
Patriotic finance also avoids some big weaknesses of McCain-Feingold. Current law tries to limit big money by restricting the flow of private funds into politics. But this restrictionist approach generates two problems. It inevitably reduces the amount of political debate -- less money means less speech. And it distorts the balance of power between incumbents and challengers. Officeholders have public reputations generated by high visibility, and challengers need lots of cash to offset this advantage. So drastic restrictions on private funds allow incumbents to tighten their grip on power under the banner of reform.
Patriot dollars, by contrast, promise more speech and more political competition. They will also reinvigorate broad popular support for public finance. Once ordinary Americans get into the habit of voting with their patriot dollars, they will punish any politician who seriously proposes a return to the bad old days when candidates relied exclusively on private money.
This is precisely where Sen. Obama is leading us. While Sen. McCain is sticking to public finance for the fall, it is only a matter of time before Republicans regain their natural advantage in private fundraising. When the next Democratic Congress eliminates the Bush tax cuts for the super-rich, this will predictably generate a tidal wave of money to conservative candidates. By 2012 or so, Republicans will be citing Obama's precedent as they repudiate a system that once had such great promise. Given his role in destroying the hopes of the last generation of reformers, Sen. Obama has a special obligation to make good on his rhetoric of change and advance a new program of public finance that builds on his own success in mobilizing small contributors.
Patriot dollars are no panacea. They do not promise a political utopia purged of special interests. But they would allow ordinary Americans to compete effectively with the rich, giving them a realistic chance to shape democratic politics long before they cast their ballots in November.
Bruce Ackerman and Ian Ayres are professors of law at Yale and authors of Voting with Dollars (Yale University Press), which elaborates their proposal and provides a model statute.