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Campaign Finance Reform?

Less than 24 hours after Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama sat together without incident at the memorial service for NBC’s Tim Russert, the two resumed their bickering. This followed the much-expected announcement that Obama would not accept public funds in his presidential race, instead relying on the millions he’s raised, and expects to raise, as the months and weeks grow closer to the general election. In response, McCain, who will take the $80 million in public financing, lashed out at his opponent, calling him a "typical politician" not interested in reforming the system by which we elect our presidents.

Um, what? That’s what we couldn’t help feeling as we watched both Obama’s decision via YouTube and the response from the McCainites. In many ways it was a piercing reminder of the mishegos campaign funding has slid down to. The public financing system, put in place as a way of controlling campaign spending, is one of McCain’s great causes and received the full support of Obama until his speech yesterday. Meant as a way to control big donors from fully funding campaigns, many, including Obama, have argued that it has given rise to the 527 groups lying in the edge of the frontier of the political process. These groups are not regulated by the Federal Election Commission nor do they receive the same scrutiny as Political Action Committees. As a reult, in recent elections, they’ve been able to funnel a great deal of money in service of candidates without an official affiliation to any one campaign. By rejecting public money and the restraints that came with it, some have said that Obama’s campaign could generate as much as $300 million in funds without the help of these groups.

We’ve been trying to do the math, listen to pundits, study campaign finance reform laws as a way of determining who is right. The answer? Both of them. By foregoing public money, Obama will continue to rely on a record number of voters who’ve delivered a consistent number of small donations that have added up to, in the words of Harold Ramis in "Ghostbusters," "a Twinkie, 35-feet long, weighing approximately 600 pounds." Now, that’s a pretty big Twinkie! One that, McCain can argue, completely wrecks the fair system of campaign financing McCain has so fervently fought for. But wasn’t the whole point of campaign finance reform to discourage the scourge of large donations — which Obama has done thanks to a little thing called the Internet.

It’s clear that nothing involving public money, or the growth of 527s, or campaign donations for that matter, will be solved during this campaign. We can only hope that the two candidates return to fighting about more definitive issues — the war, terrorism, drilling for oil in environmentally endangered areas — before the day is out. Because, to paraphrase Chevy Chase-as-Gerald Ford, it was our understanding there would be no math during this campaign.

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