When somebody says "it's not about the money," it's almost always about the money. So when John Edwards explains his decision to accept public financing for his primary campaign by saying "this is not a money calculation," our natural inclination is to assume that it is, in fact, a "money calculation." And when Edwards says that the presidential race "should not be a fundraising contest," our assumption is that if the race were, in fact, a "fundraising contest," Edwards wouldn't be the one winning it.
The thing is, there's not a lot of assuming necessary here. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton each doubled Edwards' fundraising take in the first half of this year, and the gap will probably widen considerably when the candidates report their third-quarter numbers; the Atlantic's Mark Ambinder has predicted that Clinton will report $20 million to $25 million in third-quarter contributions, while Edwards likely will report around $7 million.
By taking public money, Edwards will get an infusion of cash in January -- maybe $10 million or more -- but that money comes at a high price. As the Washington Post explains, spending limits attached to public financing could mean that Obama and Clinton would be allowed to outspend Edwards 10-to-1 in Iowa and New Hampshire.
The Edwards campaign says it doesn't matter. Edwards advisor Joe Trippi says that there are plenty of exceptions to the spending limits -- a candidate up against the spending limit in New Hampshire could buy TV time in Boston -- and that Edwards doesn't need to spend as much on TV as Obama and Clinton do because he'll be relying more on his field operations. Maybe that's so, but it's also true that Clinton already leads Edwards in New Hampshire polls by 20 or 30 percentage points; can he really hope to close that gap by spending way, way less than she does?
The race is much closer in Iowa, where polls taken this month give Clinton a two- to five-point lead over Edwards. But even if Edwards can win in Iowa and parlay that into something bigger, the spending limits could still be a problem, preventing him from raising and spending money between the end of the primary season and the Democratic National Convention in late August. While the Democratic National Committee could raise and spend money to support the presumptive Democratic candidate during that time, the candidate himself wouldn't be able to control that spending directly if he had accepted public financing in the meantime. How much could happen during that electoral lull? We've got five words for you: Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. The Swift Boaters were formed right after John Kerry secured the Democratic nomination in March 2004 and had dealt him serious blows by the time the Democratic National Convention rolled around in July. Imagine a Democratic presidential campaign in 2008 that's not just disinclined to hit back against such attacks but legally prohibited from spending money to do so.
Edwards says his decision is a matter of principle, that he sees a "corrupt" political system "awash with money," and that it's time to "step up" and take a stand. Will Edwards' principle translate into votes? If it does, will whatever bump Edwards gets from "stepping up" outweigh the downsides of taking the money? Maybe we're too jaded about how the American electorate thinks -- in a 10-second sound bite, "taking public money" sounds like a bad thing -- but we have a hard time seeing it from here.
And the thing is, we're not alone. Four years ago, when he was working for Howard Dean, Trippi told the Post that Dean's campaign thought that "any Democratic campaign that opted into the matching-funds system has given up on the general election." Asked about that Thursday, all Trippi could say was that "it's a different time" and a "different year" now.