Its proponents barely hide their contempt for the First Amendment. That House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt (D-MO) can remain a viable presidential contender after saying he prefers his version of “healthy campaigns” to “freedom of speech” should embarrass us all. So too should Gephardt’s and former Senator Bill Bradley’s incredible campaign to amend the Constitution to allow the federal government to control political speech.
Now comes President Clinton with his own blatantly unconstitutional call for the Federal Election Commission to bypass Congress and simply outlaw so‐called soft dollars — contributions from corporations, unions and individuals to political parties in support of their respective political views.
What’s going on here? When polls show that Americans place campaign finance reform near the bottom of their policy priorities, why are politicians and self‐styled public interest groups like Common Cause and Public Citizen nearly apoplectic about taking money out of politics?
The short answer is that politicians don’t like competition from well‐financed opponents. “Public interest” groups resent the intrusion of private money into a world tightly controlled by the political class. Since private money pays for information, the more of it there is in a campaign, the more candidates can communicate directly with the voters and the weaker the information gatekeeping powers of the media. Yet the Common Cause approach is typified by a campaign finance initiative passed in California last November, which would limit contributions for statewide office to just $500 and prohibit fundraising until six months before an election.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see who benefits from such a scheme. Incumbents, professional politicians and full‐time political activists with mailing lists and high public profiles will prosper. A true citizen‐candidate, someone who is successful in civil society but with a low public profile, is now a non‐starter — unless he is wealthy enough to finance his own campaign. The reformers, of course, are after self‐financed candidates as well, in their effort to squeeze as much freedom and money out of the process as possible.