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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Would Edwards Handcuff Democrats?

Most of the media coverage of money in presidential politics is really just a subset of the horse-race discussion: who’s got the most jack to spend where, and what does that say about their “viability?”
But now and then, you get a money issue with strategic implications, and that seems to be the case with John Edwards’ announcement yesterday that he was opting into public financing for his nomination campaign.
From a horse-race perspective, Edwards’ decision seems entirely logical: he can’t keep up with Clinton’s and Obama’s massive fundraising; he’ll probably have enough money with public matching funds to get through the big February 5 primaries if everything breaks right for him; and most importantly, public financing will give him a timely cash infusion going into Iowa in January, a contest he needs badly to win.
But here’s the party-wide strategic problem: by accepting public financing, Edwards will lock himself into a total primary spending “cap” that won’t expire until the Democratic convention. The concern I’m hearing today in insider circles is that if Edwards wins the nomination, he might well put the ticket at a large financial disadvantage to the GOP, whose nominee (unless it’s McCain or some other darkhorse who soon accepts public financing) will be able to run unopposed ads pounding him as a godless ambulance-chasing troop-hater through the spring and much of the summer. In other words, he’d handcuff the party.
Markos Moulitsas did a post yesterday airiing these fears (and calling the Edwards decision “stupid’); he then went on to update the post by reporting the Edwards campaign’s calm response to the handcuffing argument (e.g., the “cap” has a lot of exclusions, and non-campaign 527 organizations would be able to respond to any GOP barrage of ads). Then today Kos did another post basically arguing with the Edwards money strategy, and concluding that it puts a Democratic win in 2008 at an unacceptable risk.
I’m not suggesting that the real, live voters who will determine the Democratic nomination are following this exchange, or will care about it (though the blast from Kos is obviously not helpful to a campaign that’s worked very hard to make Edwards the preferred netroots candidate). But the underlying issue does throw some sand into the overarching argument that Edwards’ campaign has been making: he’s the best on the issues from a progressive point of view, and he also happens to be the most electable candidate as well. Given the well-documented interest of Iowa Democrats in particular about “electibility,” anything that raises doubts about Edwards on that score is bound to hurt. We’ll know pretty soon if such doubts have actually been raised, or if this is just another obscure insider bean-counting fight about unimaginably large sacks of cash.

3 comments on “Would Edwards Handcuff Democrats?

  1. sled on

    An aspect of this question that is rarely discussed: As a consultant who works in mostly House and occasionally Senate races, this would be a Godsend. In 2004, the Kerry/DNC fundraising was, understandably, scorched-earth. Very few little crumbs were left for the down-ticket, especially in 2nd-tier and lower races. That might be different this time if the nominee was done raising say, in April.
    When you ask about “handcuffing the Democrats,” perhaps remember that “Democrats” is more than the Presidential.

  2. asahopkins on

    I think the currently common analysis is somewhat short-sighted. Yes, Edwards won’t be able to raise and spend a ton of money, but the Democratic Party will. Edwards can raise money hand over fist for the Party, helping to build it into a formidable fighting force which can organize and buy ads, etc, keeping a pro-Edwards, pro-Democrat message out there (and responding to attacks) through the summer and fall. And that strength will carry through into the fall and to 2010, where a candidate-centric 2008 campaign will not.

  3. Captain Dan on

    The best that we can hope for the Democratic convention is that no candidate gets the nomination on sufficient ballots until a compromise candidate such as Al Gore or John Edwards is accepted.


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