Commentary

Campaign Finance, the Endgame

What a difference two months makes. When Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) introduced their bill to regulate campaign finance shortly after inauguration day, the usual suspects in the Washington media predicted it would pass easily. But as the debate gets underway in the Senate this week, the bill is in trouble. The reason: Democrats, thought to be strong supporters of campaign finance restrictions, fear that the bill will doom their electoral chances in 2002 and beyond.

McCain-Feingold would ban unregulated “soft money” that now goes to the political parties, outlaw corporate and labor union ads on TV and radio, and expand the reach of federal election law to limit campaign spending by independent groups like the NAACP.

Congressional Democrats supported McCain’s proposed bills in earlier versions. After all, from 1990-1998 the GOP raised about 55 percent of all soft money. If that money were banned, the Democrats would end a Republican advantage. Idealism had nothing to do with the Democrats’ support for campaign finance “reform.”

For Democrats, voting for McCain’s plan was a game of “heads I win, tails you lose.” If it passed, Republicans would lose a fundraising advantage. If it didn’t pass, congressional Democrats would still get credit from liberal groups for having been on the side of the angels. This logic meant that Democrats voted along party lines in support of McCain’s previous efforts.

Now the Democrats’ world has been turned upside down. “Heads I win, tails you lose” has turned into “be careful of what you wish for, you might get it.”

Democrats now realize what a nightmare McCain-Feingold would be for them. In the last election, Democrats raised as much soft money as the Republicans. Ending soft money is thus losing its appeal for Democrats. They also trail in so-called “hard money” fundraising. Getting rid of soft money means the Democrats will be worse off relative to their opponents.

The proposed ban on labor union ads is also bad for Democrats. Labor union membership is shrinking. But labor leaders have developed an effective attack machine that targets vulnerable Republicans. In contrast, corporate spending on ads is diffuse and less powerful. Why should Democrats deprive their allies of such an advantage?

It gets worse. McCain recently said that his bill would stop ads like those sponsored by the NAACP in the 2000 election. Many people agree that some of those ads were misleading. Nonetheless, the ads brought large numbers of African-Americans to the polls in several states. Without large black turnout in the future, the Democrats will be in electoral trouble. If McCain ’s bill will muzzle the NAACP, why should Democrats support it?

For those reasons, many Democrats may want to vote against the bill. For those who value free speech, the great danger now is that many Republicans will decide to support the McCain bill because they realize what immense harm it will do to the Democrats. After all, why should Republicans vote against a bill that gives them a huge fundraising advantage and muzzles the labor unions and the NAACP?

Political principle is one good reason. The Republicans have always said they opposed McCain because free political speech was a right. Certainly we can count on Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the leading opponent of campaign finance restrictions, to affirm that position even when political self-interest points in another direction. But what about the rest of the Republicans?

The GOP should remember that the principles at stake in the campaign finance fight are above partisanship. In America, the right to speak requires money. If government restricts spending on campaigns, it is trying to limit freedom of speech. That is unconstitutional.

On March 15, the White House said President Bush “believes democracy is first and foremost about the rights of individuals to express their views.” Let’s hope his GOP colleagues in the Senate agree.

John Samples is director of the center for representative government at the Cato Institute