George Will

WASHINGTON -- It speaks well of Dick Gephardt that he speaks so uncomfortably when compelled to speak -- as he understandably would prefer not to do -- about campaign finance law. He is honest and hence he acknowledges the incompatibility of the campaign law he supported last year with political spending practices that may support him next year -- and with the Constitution.

Howard Dean has opted out of the public funding system because he can raise more money on his own than public funding would provide, more than his principal rival, Gephardt, can raise, more than all his rivals -- except perhaps John Kerry -- can find in the family piggy bank. And because Dean can afford to spend more money, especially against Gephardt in Iowa, than is permitted by the absurd state-by-state spending limits that come with public funding. Yes, the government, that wizard of foreknowledge, knows exactly how much should be spent on political speech in each year in each state.

It is mostly Democrats who say they care about campaign finance reform, but the fact that Dean has suffered no measurable loss of support by opting out of the public financing system indicates that not even Democrats really care about it. In fact, it is arithmetically certain that most Democrats, like most of the rest of the public, dislike public funding of politics. Eighty-nine percent of all taxpayers refuse to use the checkoff provision that allocates $3 to public funding of nomination contests -- even though using the checkoff increases the taxpayer's liability not a penny. Many more than 11 percent of taxpayers are Democrats.

Gephardt, who boasts of having ``led the fight for'' the McCain-Feingold campaign finance legislation, says, as all reformers do, that there is too much money in politics. Reformers especially abhor big contributions of the sort McCain-Feingold supposedly banished because they are corrupting or create the ``appearance'' of corruption. But what, then, of George Soros?

That billionaire says he would spend his last nickel to rescue the world from George W. Bush. As a down payment on that dream, he has given, so far, more than $15 million to various like-minded organizations. He can give billions as long as everyone involved cynically pretends that the expenditure of the money is not intended to ``influence'' a federal election. This is campaign finance reform, the supposed idealism of today's liberalism: institutionalized cynicism.

Asked recently if Soros' spending is ``consistent with the spirit of the current laws,'' Gephardt's honesty did him credit, and did him in. He said: ``It is not consistent with campaign reform, but it is consistent with what the Constitution says about freedom of speech.''

George Will

George F. Will is a 1976 Pulitzer Prize winner whose columns are syndicated in more than 400 magazines and newspapers worldwide.
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