Campaign Finance, the Endgame

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

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

Congressional Democrats supported McCain’s proposed bills in earlierversions. After all, from 1990-1998 the GOP raised about 55 percent of allsoft money. If that money were banned, the Democrats would end a Republicanadvantage. Idealism had nothing to do with the Democrats’ support forcampaign finance “reform.”

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

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

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

The proposed ban on labor union ads is also bad for Democrats. Labor unionmembership is shrinking. But labor leaders have developed an effectiveattack machine that targets vulnerable Republicans. In contrast, corporatespending on ads is diffuse and less powerful. Why should Democrats deprivetheir allies of such an advantage?

It gets worse. McCain recently said that his bill would stop ads like thosesponsored by the NAACP in the 2000 election. Many people agree that some ofthose ads were misleading. Nonetheless, the ads brought large numbers ofAfrican-Americans to the polls in several states. Without large blackturnout 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. Forthose who value free speech, the great danger now is that many Republicanswill decide to support the McCain bill because they realize what immenseharm it will do to the Democrats. After all, why should Republicans voteagainst a bill that gives them a huge fundraising advantage and muzzles thelabor unions and the NAACP?

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

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

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