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Money Isn't Everything
Tim Francis-Wright

26 August 2001

In Washington, D.C., the Shays-Meehan campaign finance reform bill sits stalled in the House of Representatives. In spite of its bipartisan origins--Christopher Shays is a Republican and Marty Meehan is a Democrat--some of the most stalwart Democrats in Congress may scuttle the bill. Members of the Congressional Black Caucus have supported an alternate version of the bill, a version that the Republican leadership in the House supports simply because it differs from the version that passed in the Senate. If the House passes a different version, then the two chambers would resort to a conference committee, a committee that the House leadership could and probably would stack with opponents of any meaningful reform.

In Massachusetts, the Democratic leadership in the House and Senate have removed all funding for the "Clean Elections" law that would provide partial public funding to candidates for state offices who promise to limit campaign spending. The law is the result of a landslide victory of a 1998 referendum. The Republican Acting Governor, Jane Swift, is now the law's most vocal champion, even though she has explained that she will not limit her own campaign spending if she runs in 2002 for election to a full term.

The Massachusetts legislators are acting cravenly, of course. The Republican Party is so moribund in Massachusetts that it holds only six of forty seats in the state Senate. The Clean Elections law is its only hope in the near term that it will be a more powerful force in the state legislature. The Democratic Party is so secure in Massachusetts that the current system cannot help but perpetuate its majority.

The Republican House leadership in Washington fully understands that the large corporate interests that fueled the Bush campaign in 2000 are vital to its mission. Banning large donations of corporate funds means that the Republican Party would have to work harder to get a larger number of smaller donations. Some Republicans, notably Christopher Shays and John McCain, recognize that soliciting huge corporate donations creates all sorts of ethical problems for both Democrats and Republicans. But the party leadership likes the status quo, even if the result is a government by the tobacco companies, of the oil executives, and for the defense contractors.

The Congressional Black Caucus members do present a valid point: as much as money can corrupt, money is also important to individual campaigns and to political parties. Few politicians could reasonable expect to emulate William Proxmire by running for re-election without spending any money. Most campaigns need paid staff and funds for advertising. Political parties need funds to determine where their workers and volunteers should spend their time and energy. In particular, the Caucus members want to allow individuals to give larger amounts to national parties for get-out-the-vote activities.

But the Caucus members miss a more important point. Money is not the only determinant of electoral success. Money buys advertising, pays for staff, and pays the rent and legal bills. But ideas can and often do determine who wins and who loses. Recent political history offers some examples.

Many legislators fear that any meaningful campaign finance reform would make them vulnerable to challengers who finance their own campaigns. Self-financed candidates would almost certainly continue to be exempt from limits on contributions. While incumbents naturally fear well-financed challengers, the threat from self-financed challengers is not that great. One of the most well-known self-financed candidates, Steve Forbes ran for President in both 1996 and 2000. In the Republican primaries in 2000, Steve Forbes spent over $38 million of his own money in a futile run against George W. Bush. Even though $38 million bought him lots of advertisements, computers, and staff time, it didn't buy him many voters. He dropped out of the race before throwing good money after bad.

The According to the Center for Responsive Politics, in 1998, seven candidates for U.S. Senate seats and seven candidates for U.S. House seats spent over $1,000,000 of those own money on their campaigns. Only two Senate candidates and one House candidate won election. In 2000, the numbers were better for the self-funders: four of six Senate candidates, but only one of twelve House candidates who spent over $1,000,000 of their own money won election. If self-financed campaigns are the wave of the future, then they should be doing a bit better than that.

In the 2000 Presidential election, the Buchanan campaign raised $38.8 million (including federal matching funds of $16.6 million). This total was 20 percent of the funds available to the Bush campaign, and over 30 percent of the funds available to the Gore campaign. It was far in excess of the $8.4 million available to the Nader campaign. Despite the impressive receipts, voters stayed away from Buchanan chads in droves. Buchanan appeared on 49 state ballots, 5 more than Nader, and had $30 million more to spend, but he still received fewer than 700,000 votes, over 2 million less than Nader.

A naive observer might think that Buchanan had better prospects than Nader in the election. Both men were well known among the electorate. Nader's only real advantage over Buchanan was that he did not have a legal battle with John Hagelin for the nomination of his party. (John Hagelin would have been a more formidable adversary if he did not believe that meditation can make you levitate.) Nonetheless, Buchanan had the funds to wage his legal fight successfully. Early in the campaign, pundits saw both Buchanan and Nader as possible spoilers, but Buchanan never amounted to much in polls.

Nader's relative popularity should not have been surprising. He espoused policies that appealed to new voters and to liberal Democrats who were upset, with justification, with a Democratic Party that aimed to mobilize the political center, not the political left. Buchanan ran a xenophobic campaign, essentially the 1968 Wallace campaign redux. Unfortunately for him, the Republicans had borrowed from the Wallace playbook in their appeals to Southern whites. Where they did not borrow from that playbook, they used the Reagan playbook of lower taxes, new military programs, and smaller government. There were clear reasons for liberals to vote for Nader, but few reasons for even the most conservative voters to opt for Buchanan. The lesson for Democrats is that no matter how much you raise for your campaign, a bad enough platform and a bad enough candidate can turn that gold into so much dross.

There is an even larger lesson to the Democratic Party from the Clean Election Act in Maine. In the 2000 elections, almost one-third of candidates to state offices opted into the public financing provided by the act, including many incumbents. The Clean Election Act did increase the number of contested races. And although the Act was originally a liberal brainchild, both liberals and conservatives opted into the Act's provisions. But the act has freed many Maine legislators from having to raise funds and allowed them to do their jobs more effectively.

Some of the incumbents in Maine who opted into the Clean Elections system fully expected to be free of the link between money and their votes. After all, opting into the Maine system limits candidates to a small number of $5 contributions. But these same incumbents have found an unexpected benefit. Avoiding the chore of fundraising means that incumbents have more time to do their actual jobs. Maine's new system really is a double-win for democracy. Legislators no longer have the economic incentive to listen only to their richest constituents. They can safely ignore lobbyists because they can actually draft, revise, and consider legislation. That is, after all, what legislators are supposed to do.

The Democratic Party needs to realize that Corporate America is not its natural ally. The large donations in soft money from corporations are generally for the benefit of those selfsame corporations, not the party. Real campaign finance reform will make it difficult for the political parties to raise as much money as they did in the previous election cycles. They will have to work harder to bring in smaller donations. They will need to decide which uses of their funds are the most cost-effective.

Real campaign finance reform offers the Democratic Party a way to reconnect with Americans who are cynical about politics. Democrats could have candidates, platforms, and policies that mobilize and excite voters. Or they could continue to placate their largest donors, corporations that do not answer to the people, but to the shareholders. May the Democrats in the House choose wisely.

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