Washington Times

At what level of giving, if any, would the people who contribute money to political candidates begin to feel overstretched? That’s the question that comes to mind as 2008 presidential aspirants release their fund-raising reports for the first quarter of 2007, the first serious test for candidate viability of the presidential cycle.

The Clinton money machine racked up a stunning $26 million, John Edwards came in at $14 million, with other Democratic candidates well down in single digits and Barack Obama unheard from at this writing. The Clinton number is breathtaking. It wasn’t that long ago that Al Gore set a first-quarter record with a measly $8.9 million. It seemed like a lot at the time, evidence not only of Mr. Gore’s front-runner status but of the extent to which he was a beneficiary of the Clinton apparatus as the then-president’s preferred successor.

Now, the same amount would merit status along with New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who raised $6 million the first quarter and is pretty clearly running not for the top spot on the ticket but for vice president. Even adjusted for inflation, Mr. Gore’s 1999 total would put him about in line with John Edwards as a viable candidate but nobody’s idea of a frontrunner.

Mr. Gore made what turned out to be a very bad decision in summer 1999, which was to stick to the federal matching-funds system for his primary campaign. Mr. Gore thereby limiting his total spending, through all the primary season up to the Democratic convention in mid-August 2000, to about $35 million. It might have been OK if Bill Bradley’s attempt to unseat him had been stillborn, but it took a vigorous campaign through the March 7 “Super Tuesday” primaries for Mr. Gore to lock up the nomination, and when he did, he was pretty much broke.

George W. Bush, by contrast, decided to forgo federal funds for the primary. So as he was beating back the challenge John McCain posed and thereafter, he was able to keep shaking the trees, maintaining a fully funded campaign machine through the convention, which the public system pays for for both parties. Meanwhile, Mr. Gore’s campaign was in quasi-limbo, with key staff offloaded to the Democratic National Committee and elsewhere.

I won’t say that this decision is what cost Mr. Gore the White House. He was so close that had he done any of a half-dozen things differently he might well have made it. But the federal matching-funds decision was surely one of them.

It was a lesson John Kerry understood perfectly well in 2003, when he opted out of matching funds for the primary. He followed the lead of Howard Dean, whose Internet-fired fund-raising was provoking a major rethinking of the principles of campaign finance. The Dean explosion turned out to involve a substantial amount of hype. And Mr. Kerry’s biggest money resource in fall 2003 was not a contributor base ready to pony up vast sums but his wife’s fortune. Nevertheless, Mr. Kerry rightly understood that if he stayed in the system he would be hamstrung even if he did get the nomination, and his decision to opt out was the high-water mark for boldness in his campaign.

And it marked the end of the public financing of primary campaigns. Anybody in the public system now is, not to put too fine a point on it, a loser, or perhaps is playing a different game from presidential politics, maybe some other bid for fame and notoriety.

But there is one Rubicon yet to be crossed, and that is the financing of the general election campaign. Is this the year? In 2004, the candidate of each major party received about $74 million for the general election, which is to say, from the end of the convention until Election Day in November. Not to put too fine a point on it, that’s a lot of money for three months’ time. But is it enough? Donors have been opening their checkbooks as never before, partly because the amount one can legally contribute doubled under the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform act of 2002, partly because of the huge increase in the number of people with money to give, partly because of an increase in partisan sentiment that makes people see election results as especially high stakes.

But have we reached the point at which donors are ready and able to do everything they have done through the primaries, as well as all the funding they provide for the candidates farther down the ticket, and still step up to the challenge of exceeding matching funds for the general election by a sufficient margin to make a difference? It’s hard to see how that yet makes sense. But chances are good that the minute the money is out there, the fund-raising professionals will know it.

It’s only a matter of time, and if Hillary Clinton’s first-quarter total is any indication, this could be the year.