June 07, 2002
Campaign Finance Reform bad for Democracy

Campaign Finance Reform bad for Democracy

No, I am not quoting Limbaugh or National Review or Mitch McConnell, I am quoting everyone's favorite left-wing blog, Tapped.

Tapped read a brief Alterman post about campaign finance reform (he doesn't understand the topsy-turvy politics behind it), and pumped out this screed. I, of course, have to add my own comments to their post.

First of all, it was not "obvious" that the recently passed reform bill was going to benefit Republicans more than Democrats, as Alterman suggests. Or rather, it was obvious but no one wanted to talk about it. Only TAP's campaign finance expert was saying such things publicly (and had been for years).

Well, that's not the fault of the GOP, as Tapped is alluding.

But no one else wanted to discuss the obvious political implications of the bill because that might have rocked the boat. The reform groups were so committed to achieving some kind of reform that they didn't want to do anything that might jeopardize its passage. In fact, Common Cause willingly accepted (some have gone as far to say they suggested) the compromise of raising the hard money limits in exchange for a partial ban on soft money. (The ban is "partial" because it only effects national parties — state parties can continue to raise soft money, as can the myriad of other political committees that will be established just for that purpose.) Meanwhile, the Democrats in the House and Senate lulled themselves into thinking that they could keep pace with the Republicans in raising hard money (in spite evidence to the contrary). And the editorial boards of the Post and the Times stayed above the political fray. Finally, the Republicans in the Senate, House, and White House were hardly going to squeal.

Again, it was not the job of the GOP to point out that the pet project of so many Democrats (and a few McCain acolytes) was likely to hurt the Democrats more than the Republicans.

That's an important part of the explanation of the politics behind this reform. But there's more: Congress and the White House, in the wake of Enron, felt something had to be done to free themselves from the taint of special interest money. It became a way to get out from under the political scandal. After all, both parties and both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue had been bought off by Enron and Andersen. They figured as long as they could get a bill that didn't disturb the status quo all that much, why not pass it to provide political cover?

Enron provided the excuse to pass this turkey; it has been kicking around (in a similar form) for quite some time now.

There's also another political axis on this issue — incumbents vs. challengers.
This new reform works well for all incumbents. After all, they are not running against each other, but against challengers who already operate at a disadvantage in the money game. There's no way challengers can keep up with incumbents in raising those $ 2,000 contributions. And the reform is perfect for President Bush (another soon-to-be incumbent lest we forget, and one who broke the bank the last time on money from wealthy individuals). It will make his job of running for president even easier the next time around. He'll once again call himself "a reformer" (stealing that mantle from John McCain). Moreover, Bush knew — as did every Republican in Congress — that overall the bill plays to the GOP's fundraising strengths.

Well, if the Democrats cannot count, then the GOP shouldn't prevent them from running off a cliff. Or perhaps, it was political principles at work here (The GOP had a few too many members who blinked, and therefore prostituted themselves to supporting a law that will likely be found unconstitutional. Bush should be lumped in with that group for signing it.) If it were simply a matter of looking at the numbers, why would Mitch McConnell (R-KY) work so tirelessly to defeat a bill that would benefit his party? (Conversely, why would loyal Democrats such as Russ Feingold work to pass a bill that would harm their party? There are principled members of both parties, although Tapped would probably disagree with me on that, or on who in each party qualifies for that label).

Reformers should have been fighting — and should continue their fight — for reforms that strenthened[sic] democracy. Unfortunately, this new law won't improve the sorry state of the "American experiment," which is why Alterman is right: The strum und drang wasn't about principle, it was about posturing. One of the most interesting articles written near the end of the debate came from Fred Barnes in the Wall Street Journal (sorry, no link), a piece debunking Republican fears about the campaign finance bill. Its title? "Armageddon for the GOP? Hardly."

I posted a suggestion for REAL reform in April, and sent a copy of it to TAPPED earlier this week. They have not responded to it, so it apparently does not strike their fancy, as it would result in a severe clamping down on political posturing. <sarcasm> It's unconstitutional, but we're far too interested in progressive feel-good policy to worry about little details like that. </sarcasm>

I think the line Reformers should have been fighting...for reforms that strenthened democracy would read more accurately if the last two letters were changed from "cy" to "ts", as that is what Tapped is really trying to say.

posted on June 07, 2002 06:49 PM


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