Commentary

Let’s Skip McCain’s Sideshow

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) seems to be on a roll. Earlier this month the Senate passed his new restrictions on campaign finance. Now that Congress is back in session, McCain and his allies in the media are urging the House of Representatives to quickly vote on the bill. They argue the American people are greatly concerned about campaign finance. Two new studies say they are wrong.

A new Washington Post poll finds that a solid majority of Americans (56 percent) give campaign finance middle, low or no priority on the national agenda. Only 42 percent say money in politics should be the highest or a high priority for lawmakers. Yet even this minority overstates the public’s concern for campaign finance. This survey was taken after two full weeks of Senate time and media attention were showered on McCain’s crusade. Even with a virtual monopoly on public attention, McCain could not get a majority of Americans interested in his Holy Grail.

This lack of public concern is not surprising. As political scientist David Primo of Stanford University has noted, “In poll after poll, campaign finance is near the bottom of the list of important issues, alongside world peace and homelessness.” Campaign finance thus finishes well behind the people’s real concerns. In the Washington Post poll, for example, 61 percent of Americans thought cutting taxes should be the highest or a high priority for Washington. Yet instead of focusing on tax cuts, Washington treated us to two solid weeks of senators whining about how hard it is to raise money and how unfair the issue ads were during their last campaign.

The Post poll does reveal interesting differences among Americans about campaign finance. McCain’s leftist allies argue restricting money in politics helps the little guy and prevents government by the rich. The Post found that the rich (those making more than $75,000 annually) were slightly more likely than those of modest means (less than $30,000 annually) to give campaign spending a high priority. The little guy doesn’t share the Naderite obsession with money in politics.

Surprisingly, Democrats and Republicans gave campaign finance an equally low ranking (only 39 percent of both parties thought it should be high priority). The Post poll shows a bipartisan yawn about restricting political speech.

Only two groups seem concerned about campaign finance. Slightly less than half (48 percent) of Independents thought campaign finance should have high priority. Even among this group, more than half (51 percent) assigned modest to no importance to the issue.

In fact, the elderly were the only group in which a majority (53 percent) assigned the highest or a high priority to campaign finance. On the other hand, young people don’t care about it at all; only 27 percent said it should be a pressing national priority.

The second blow to campaign finance “reformers” appeared in a new scholarly paper by political scientist Sean Theriault of the University of Texas. Many members of Congress believe that voting against McCain’s new regulations will be poison in the election of 2002. After all, who wants to vote for “corruption” and against “reform”?

Theriault decided to test the proposition that voters reward House members who voted for campaign finance reform bills in the 105th and 106th Congresses. His statistical analysis found that voting for or against campaign finance reform did not affect a member’s percentage of the vote in the next election. The public may tell pollsters they support changes in campaign finance, but the hard evidence says that Sen. Mitch McConnell (D-Ky.) is right: No one ever lost a race by voting against campaign finance restrictions.

McCain’s obsession with campaign finance is a Washington mania. The American people have other priorities, like reducing government’s burden on the economy. Unlike the Senate, the House of Representatives should put McCain’s bill on the back burner and deal with the public’s real priorities. In the fall of 2002, tax cuts will matter a lot more to voters than sham issues like restrictions on campaign finance.

John Samples is director of the Center for Representative Government.