Can You Walk the Walk When the Shoes Don't Fit? Sanders, Clinton and the New Hampshire Debate

Last night's Democratic presidential primary debate in New Hampshire included the first question on campaign finance policy so far in the 2016 race.

Moderator Chuck Todd asked Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders why he "rails against big money in politics," but declined - as has every top-tier candidate - to participate in the presidential public financing program. Sanders opted instead to rely on private donations from individuals.

The reason?

The presidential public financing system is "currently very antiquated, and no longer applies to modern day politics," said Sanders; former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton nodded in agreement.

That's true. The system needs to be repaired. Clinton and Sanders have robust plans to reform the role that money plays in politics, including commitments to support small donor matching systems. And there is a bill - the EMPOWER Act - pending in Congress that would modernize public financing for the 21st century, post-Citizens United landscape.

But it's first worth considering for a moment the past success of the program.

Presidents George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, and Jimmy Carter paid for their general election campaigns in part with public funds. All of them (except then-Gov. Bush in 2000) used it for their primary campaigns, too. In fact, every nominee of the Republican and Democratic parties from 1976 to 2008, with the notable exception of President Obama, used the program to finance their general election campaigns. Challengers beat incumbents, and vice-versa.

Public financing creates dramatic differences in how candidates spend their time. For example, in his publicly-financed campaign for re-election in 1984, President Reagan attended only three fundraisers - all on behalf of the Republican National Committee rather than his own campaign, according to Trevor Potter, president of the Campaign Legal Center. In contrast, President Obama attended 223 fundraisers in 2012 for his re-election campaign. That is a lot of time talking to people with a lot of resources.

The lesson of the Reagan-to-Obama evolution is that the system is badly in need of an update to empower everyday Americans and ensure that candidates aren't just raising money - and listening to - those at the top of the economic ladder.

After the Supreme Court's 2010 decision in Citizens United, wealthy individuals and special interests spent more than $1.2 billion on behalf of federal candidates in 2012, per the Center for Responsive Politics. Almost every presidential candidate has a Super PAC backing his or her campaign that can take unlimited contributions from nearly any source. And while money certainly does not guarantee a win - just ask Gov. Jeb Bush - it is necessary to compete and shapes the campaign agenda.

The good news is that with digital fundraising, well-organized campaigns across the spectrum are able to quickly raise money in small amounts at the click of a mouse. Still, most find it difficult or near-impossible to match the resources of groups that build their war chests with six- and seven-figure gifts from wealthy donors.

The EMPOWER Act, introduced by Senator Tom Udall in the Senate and Representatives David Price and Chris Van Hollen in the House, is the overhaul that the presidential public financing program needs. It would match the first $250 that an individual contributes to a presidential candidate with public funds at a rate of six-to-one. That means that a $250 contribution would be worth $1,750 to the candidate.

This would provide important incentives to donors of modest means to contribute to campaigns. In exchange, participating candidates would voluntarily cap contributions at $1,000 per donor - far less than the $2,700 that is allowed now. To compete with Super PACs, campaigns would not be subject to the voluntary spending limits of the old system. Political parties would also be able to coordinate more closely with candidates if the funds used come from small-dollar donors.

Just as in the current system, Americans would be able to contribute to this program via the "check-off" on their tax returns without increasing their tax bill.

Other proposals pending in Congress - the Government By the People Act, the Fair Elections Now Act, and the Empowering Citizens Act - would implement similar systems for congressional candidates. They are modeled in part off of successful programs in New York City, Connecticut and Maine, among other locales.

By no means is public financing a cure-all for what ails our political system. But it is an important component of reform that will help reorder priorities in the White House and on Capitol Hill to address more fully the needs of the American people.