Commentary

McCain-Feingold Will Hurt Democrats—And They Know It

This article first appeared in USA Today, March 16, 2001.
For years, congressional Democrats have loved playing “heads, I win; tails, you lose” with the regulation of soft money.

The Republicans raised more soft money, so if a ban on such funds became law, the Democrats got better off. Conversely, if Republicans stopped restrictions in the Senate, the Democrats could claim credit for supporting a noble cause (and blame the Republicans for being “corrupt”).

Now the game has changed. “Heads, I win; tails, you lose” has turned into “watch what you wish for; you might get it.”

Sen. John McCain’s proposed ban on soft money may become law. The Democrats are becoming worried. Here’s why:

In the 2000 election, the Democrats drew even with the Republicans in soft-money fundraising. They still lag behind in raising funds regulated by federal law (so-called “hard money”) and have no real prospect of catching up. The Republicans are simply too good at raising small donations.

Sen. John Breaux, D-La., concludes that McCain’s bill will create “an unlevel playing field.” He’s right.

But that’s not the end of the bad news for Democrats. McCain’s bill shuts out labor-union TV and radio ads for the last 60 days before an election. Labor unions may be declining in numbers, but their focused and ruthless media campaigning is a major Democratic weapon. Democrats in close elections need that weapon in 2002 and beyond.

Apart from practical politics, Democrats may suspect that McCain’s ban on soft money is a sham. McCain claims a ban would get the special interests out of politics. Seasoned Democrats realize that far from disappearing, soft money will simply go to interest groups and their media campaigns in 2002.

Yes, the very interest groups Sen. McCain wants to drive out of politics.

Congressional Democrats should find a new game to play. Instead of “watch what you wish for,” they might try “doing well by doing right.” More than a few Senate Democrats know that a ban on soft money would hurt their party and the nation. In the next few weeks, they can help their party and the country by stopping McCain’s bill.

John Samples is director of the Cato Institute Center for Representative Government in Washington.