Only one narrow reading of the Supreme Court’s Buckley v Valeo (1976) case exists that comes close to validating the Court’s claim that giving money to a political campaign equals free speech under the First Amendment. This narrow interpretation follows: if everyone gave small amounts of money to political candidates as an extension of their political support, then the act of giving money becomes more a political than a commercial act and thus worthy of political speech protections under the first amendment.
Never before had any presidential nominee made a credible claim on giving campaign contributions as a political act, until 2007 and the Obama campaign. Obama followed the Joe Trippi/ Howard Dean path of using the internet to raise campaign contributions, but while Dean/Trippi showed the world that it was possible to use the internet as a vehicle for raising widespread campaign contribution, Obama added steroids to the internet monster that Dr Dean created. With more than 2 million donors giving money often in small and modest increments, from $5, $10, $50, Obama became the big money candidate with few big money donors.
Here is the key to fitting the Obama model within a democratic public sphere: Nobody owns Obama, or has a claim of undue influence, or even claim on having access into an Obama oval office.
As long as money and wealth are not seen as distorting the political process, then money can lay claim to a democratic political process– in a normative sense. Thus, small campaign contributions can coincide within a Buckley v Valeo definition of campaign contributions and free speech.
Quite frankly, small donors and expressive giving comprise the spirit behind public financing and campaign finance reform; and unlike the current system, which is a failure, the Obama model thus far is simpler, more steamlined, effective, efficient and successful than the existing federal system. In terms of efectiveness just think of how easily Obama was able to steamroll Clinton during the primaries.
It is also important to note that McCain is now using the issue of federal financial reform as a cynical campaign ploy. Given McCain’s inability to tap big or small donors, he is forced into the federal system and thus is trying to avoid saying the obvious: as his primary shenanigans suggest, he would use the private system if he could win with it; he would rely upon private big donors if he had them. Also important to take stock of the 527’s that are cranking up to swiftboat Obama on McCain’s behalf, and you see again how McCain sides with expediency over principle.
In the meantime, Obama’s reliance on small givers has the potential to de-gin a broken system, as the candidate suggests. Not only is his campaign not taking money from PACS and special interests, but now neither is the DNC. Further, not only has Obama eschewed 527s in support of his own campaign, but progressive activist orgs, like MoveOn,org have closed down their own 527 as a nod to Obama. This is important stuff.
Contrary to what McCain suggests, Obama’s commitment to public financing stands; his commitment to democratic giving remains.