Campaign Finance Regulation without Romance

Candidates are in hot pursuit of the party nominations and eventually the presidency. That means they are defining enemies, inducing fear, and offering voters hope — that their enemies will be punished and their fears relieved.

The rhetoric of campaign finance regulation is replete with such  enemies — the special interests, “Big Money,” the rich and so on — and one set of friends, “reformers.” Barack Obama has been especially skillful practicing this politics of fear to pave the way for additional restrictions on money in politics.

However, the reality of campaign finance regulation is a lot different from the rhetoric, and the 2008 campaign has already brought an exemplar of regulation absent romance.

Unity08 is an organization that tried to put together a “centrist, bi-partisan approach to the solving of our nation’s problems and the possibility of an independent, unity ticket for the presidency.” Unity08 sought to be a movement first and a third party with a candidate, second. I use the past tense here because a posted letter to their supporters suggests their effort has come to an end.

Unity08’s analysis of the reasons for their failure merits attention. They now lack enough members or money to go on. The two are interdependent: more members generate more money and vice versa. The Unity08 leaders think a lack of money posed the biggest obstacle:

The Federal Election Commission … has taken the position that we are subject to their jurisdiction … and, therefore, that we are limited to $5000 contributions from individuals (even though the Democrat and Republican Parties are able to receive $25,000 from individuals). Needless to say, this position by the FEC effectively limited our fundraising potential, especially in the crucial early going when we needed substantial money fast to get on with ballot access and the publicity necessary to build our membership. We were caught in a peculiar catch-22; we wanted to break the dependence on big money by getting lots of small contributions from millions of members, but needed some up-front big money to help generate the millions of members to make the small contributions. And the FEC (in effect, an arm of the parties) didn’t let that happen.

The need for large donations to build fundraising capacity was first discovered by the best political science book you never heard of. Contribution limits complicate political organizing by outsiders and thereby stabilize the status quo and benefit those who hold power.

Campaign finance regulations are sold as a panacea for all that ails Americans. They are said to foster competition, prevent corruption, and purify political speech. The Unity08 leaders have found out the truth about such regulations. Such rules are largely created to stifle electoral competition to help out one party or the other, or — as in this case — to permit both parties to stifle a third alternative. Such regulations don’t outlaw competition; they do establish arcane rules that discriminate against outsiders like Unity08.

When a candidate starts demonizing Big Money, remember Unity08 and the reality its leaders discovered, too late for their cause.