Posted by Tod Lindberg on March 20th, 2001
The Washington Times
There is no reason to doubt the sincerity of the commitment of Sens. John McCain and Russ Feingold to the cause of campaign-finance reform, nor their belief that the current system is corrupting. But at the same time, the issue of campaign finance is obviously a great one for political posturing. I think that eventually some kind of reform legislation will indeed pass out of Congress and be signed into law by the president, if not this time around, then later. And each time the issue comes up and gets closer to passage, more of the interests underlying the principled rhetoric get exposed, thereby revealing more of the posturing for what it is.
For many years, Republicans were the ones to get flayed on this. To conservative legal scholars, the First Amendment objection that Republicans routinely raise against the McCain-Feingold proposal to ban soft money contributions (and to regulate to a greater degree so-called independent expenditures by non-party organizations) is indeed serious. But it is probably fair to say that for many Republicans, the constitutional objection also provided cover for a raw political calculation: Republicans have historically done better at raising soft money. (In their own minds, this yields not an advantage they enjoy but partial equalization for direct and in-kind contributions to Democrats from labor unions.) Ergo, the Republican Party’s electoral prospects would be (unfairly) reduced by a soft-money ban. This is all one needs to know; constitutional scholarship is optional. The interest is clear, and so long as the principled case aligns well with the interest, the interest looks like it is controlling.
But, of course, Democrats likewise had an interest. Given their historical lag in soft-money contributions, they might readily be portrayed as simply trying to deprive the Republican Party of its advantage, and never mind their rhetoric about the corrupting effect of money on politics. Republicans certainly described them in those terms. Yet the pro-reform preferences of many of those who write about the issue, as well as the general sense among Americans that politics does indeed reek of moneyed influence, allowed Democrats to maintain a mantle of high-mindedness. The GOP consolation prize for Americans’ accepting the Democratic nostrum that politics is corrupted by money was that the public also didn’t believe that politicians could or would do anything to fix it; the issue of campaign-finance reform thus lacks electoral salience.
But then, lo and behold, Democrats discovered that the supposed permanent GOP advantage in raising soft money was an illusion. It turned out that this GOP advantage was not some sort of necessary byproduct of Republicans’ love affair with and defense of the rich (in the Democratic view). Democrats always knew that one could get rich while retaining a social conscience; the last decade or so has seen them extend that insight to the activity of asking for vast sums of money from individuals so situated. And indeed, rich Democrats have responded favorably. If there are more rich Republicans than rich Democrats out there, this is no longer reflected in the fund-raising numbers. In 2000, Democrats drew even.
And accordingly, many of them have developed a different view of the evils of soft money. Their calculation of interest having changed, many Democrats are suffering from an unsettling discontinuity between principle and interest in their position on the issue. Some are backing off, and accordingly are starting to feel heat from fires they have been fanning for years and using to roast the Republican Party.
Now what? Will the Republican Party become more enthusiastic about reform now that Democrats have achieved parity? I have always thought, and long written in this space, that parity was the precondition for a ban on soft money. It struck me that only if no one had a clear advantage would it be possible for the political process to deal with the question of what, if anything, to do. Oddly enough, though, parity has a broader lesson to teach. It’s that there is plenty of money out there for both Democrats and Republicans to fully fund their political operations. Recall that the parties fought the 2000 election essentially to a draw. The current system of campaign-finance, ugly though it may be, must nevertheless be construed as a politically neutral rule – merely the terms on which the two parties obtain the full funding they desire.
There could, of course, be a new rule or rules. But would that matter? Any new rule coming out is apt to be just as neutral in effect, once both sides figure it out. That’s because the money and the will among Democrats and Republicans to fully fund their electoral endeavors is present now, and there’s nothing anybody can do about that.