Now that John McCain has retreated from the field in the battle for the Republican presidential nomination, Vice President Al Gore is trying to seize the Arizona senator's pet issue, campaign finance reform. He evidently hopes to rally McCain independents to the Gore camp.
But the truth about campaign-finance mania is apparently one that none dare mention: Nobody cares. Nobody, that is, except the Washington press corps, a gaggle of law professors, opportunistic politicians soiled by scandal, and editorial writers. But the people who actually count could not care less.
McCain and Gore may be atoning for the Keating Five and Buddhist temple scandals, respectively, but voters generally seem unmoved. McCain, for one, has denounced special interests with the apocalyptic fervor of a revivalist preacher. Money in politics is the root of all evil. Washington is the "city of Satan." The anti-reformist GOP is "the Death Star" from which McCain must escape to vanquish his enemies and "give government back to the people." Mr. Smith goes to Washington and meets Darth Vader.
Californians had two opportunities on Super Tuesday to ratify McCain's reformist agenda. They could have voted for him. They also could have passed a campaign finance reform measure that he enthusiastically endorsed. Proposition 26 would have banned corporate "soft money" contributions, barred candidates from fundraising until six months before legislative elections and twelve months before statewide elections, required frequent disclosure, and offered taxpayer-financed advertising credits (i.e., public funding) to candidates who agreed to spending limits.
They did neither.
What happened? McCain was trounced by more than 23 points by George W. Bush among Republicans voters, and he came in third with only 23% in the open primary "beauty contest." Voters also crushed the campaign-finance initiative McCain endorsed by a nearly two-to-one margin. If that were not enough, the Los Angeles Times asked more than 4,100 voters which issues were most important to them in deciding for whom they voted for president. Campaign finance reform ranked dead last.
The public has every right to be suspicious about such sweeping reform measures because, rather than opening up politics, campaign finance reform simply maintains political elites. It is no coincidence that the most vociferous proponents of reform are old Washington hands and consummate political insiders.
By contrast, true political "outsiders" hate campaign finance reform. All of the plaintiffs who challenged the initial federal reforms in the landmark case of Buckley v. Valeo were outsiders, both conservative and liberal. The "Buckley" of that case was New York Senator (now U.S. Senior Court of Appeals Judge) James Buckley, who has written that without the few very large contributions he received at the outset of his third-party campaign in 1970, he would never have won.
Insurgent candidates don't stand a chance against incumbents with an established fundraising apparatus. When federal law limiting donations to $1,000 a pop, a candidate needs a far-ranging money machine in perpetual motion, not just a few well-heeled supporters who believe in the cause.
Moreover, often lost in the hand wringing over campaign finance abuses is the fact that the first round of reforms got us into this mess. There would be no "soft money" shenanigans if there were no caps on how much individuals can give to candidates.
In the end, most people believe that if donors want to blow hard-earned money on political contributions, they ought to be allowed to do so. It is simply impossible in most cases to distinguish between contributions designed to buy a politician's vote — that is, change what he would otherwise do — and contributions given to support and promote a politician who already believes what the donor believes. The latter is, after all, what we all believe contributions are supposed to do.
The only "reform" we need is to take a light saber to current reforms and just require immediate disclosure. If we ever were to run for office, here is what we would say to voters: "We will accept contributions from whomever wants to help out. If you like the cut of our jib, and you want us to win, then contribute heartily. If you think you can buy our votes, you are certainly welcome to try. You will not succeed. But it's your money, and a fool is entitled to spend it the same as a wise person.
We will disclose everything we get on our website. If the media wants to make hay of who gives and how much, that is its right under the First Amendment. They have to fill the newspapers with something other than horoscopes, Junior Jumbles, and opinion commentaries.
Campaign finance reform has been talked to death. McCain made it a centerpiece of his campaign. California's voters, the final arbiters, had a chance to decide for themselves and they did. That's democracy for you — a double-edged democracy, indeed.