The big ugly? Could be worse.

I am, during the day, an evangelist/apologist for the system that provides New York City politicians with public money to run their campaigns. (If you found your way here from my twitter feed, you probably know this already.) Depending on where you get your news this week, we are either a) “model for reform at the state and federal level that puts a higher priority on encouraging small donors than restricting big ones,” or b) “a bunch of unaccountable bureaucrats” administering a set of “ugly campaign laws.”

The New York Post editorial page can be sharp and deadly when it dials in on hypocrisy or corruption among the political class. But when one of their pet issues is on the table, the page is liable to summon its mightiest outrage at the mildest of provocations. One of these issues is the city’s campaign finance system, and today’s edition offered an example: a straight-faced argument against any limitations on campaign contributions, based (precariously) on CFB’s refusal to allow Bill Thompson to spend public funds campaigning in a runoff election that has not been declared.

The argument, as I understand it:

  1. Thompson says he cannot campaign because he has no money.
  2. Thompson’s statement reminds us that money = speech.
  3. Removing limits on money would provide more speech.

I think that’s it. It’s not really about Thompson, it’s just a remix of the same old conservative song on campaign finance: Money Is Speech, Leave it Alone (First Amendment).

But money isn’t speech. Speech is what I’m doing here. It’s what I post to Twitter, it’s what I do when I answer the phone. It’s what Bill Thompson or anyone else does on the steps of City Hall when they have something to say.

Money is different. Money puts all of that on your television. It stuffs your mailbox full of it. Money buys a microphone, speech is what you put into it. And– as Alec McGillis argued in The New Republic earlier this month, the public financing program gets more and different kinds of speech in front of the microphone.

Today in the same publication, Mark Schmitt goes one better. “The big story about money in politics in New York,” he writes, “is that small-donor public financing can make elections more competitive and offset big money.”

He rattles off the high points: in two citywide contests, a candidate who took public matching and limited his spending defeated a self-financing millionaire. On the Democratic side, the major candidates in a wide-open race for mayor finished in reverse order of what they raised. At the Council level, a Super PAC with seemingly unlimited resources posted a mixed record where it backed candidates in truly competitive races. And despite the breathless commentary over the impact of outside spending on city races, it amounted to about 1/10 of the funds available to candidates themselves. (In US Senate races last year, spending by outside groups amounted to half what the candidates spent themselves.)

So at worst, the day was a wash. The general election is 7 weeks from today. Our work is out on display, for worse and for better. I still came home before the dark, had dinner with daughter #1, made faces at daughter #2, and made dinner for my wife. Hopefully I will do it all again tomorrow.

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