Let’s Skip McCain’s Sideshow

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Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) seems to be on a roll. Earlier this month theSenate passed his new restrictions on campaign finance. Now that Congress isback in session, McCain and his allies in the media are urging the Houseof Representatives to quickly vote on the bill. They argue the Americanpeople are greatly concerned about campaign finance. Two new studies saythey are wrong.

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

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

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

Surprisingly, Democrats and Republicans gave campaign finance an equally lowranking (only 39 percent of both parties thought it should be highpriority). The Post poll shows a bipartisan yawn about restricting politicalspeech.

Only two groups seem concerned about campaign finance. Slightly less thanhalf (48 percent) of Independents thought campaign finance should have highpriority. Even among this group, more than half (51 percent) assigned modestto 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 otherhand, young people don’t care about it at all; only 27 percent said itshould be a pressing national priority.

The second blow to campaign finance “reformers” appeared in a new scholarlypaper by political scientist Sean Theriault of the University of Texas. Manymembers of Congress believe that voting against McCain’s new regulationswill 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 memberswho voted for campaign finance reform bills in the 105th and 106thCongresses. His statistical analysis found that voting for or againstcampaign finance reform did not affect a member’s percentage of the vote inthe next election. The public may tell pollsters they support changes incampaign finance, but the hard evidence says that Sen. Mitch McConnell(D-Ky.) is right: No one ever lost a race by voting against campaign financerestrictions.

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