McCain's campaign finance reform limits citizen in

Jonah Goldberg

2/22/2001 12:00:00 AM - Jonah Goldberg
Everything you are supposed to know about campaign finance reform is wrong. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that everything Sen. John McCain wants you to know about campaign finance reform is wrong. The war hero and failed Republican challenger to George W. Bush recently declared that he has a "mandate" for campaign reform. This brings us quickly to myth No. 1: McCain has no mandate. McCain lost to Bush midway into the Republican primaries. This means that roughly 99 percent of Americans never voted for McCain for president, which precludes the possibility of receiving a mandate. Moreover, nonpartisan pollster Andrew Kohut, of the Pew Research Center, points out that even among McCain's primary supporters, campaign finance reform was not a top priority. Certainly if George W. Bush can't make a legitimate claim at a mandate - and he won the general election - it's hard to see how McCain can find one. McCain makes a common mistake among politicians, especially senators. He confuses excessive media coverage with popular political support. But if that was how things worked, O.J. Simpson would be president by now and the cast of "Survivor" would be in the Senate. My friend National Review editor Rich Lowry recently wrote of campaign finance reform: "As an intellectual matter, it's a travesty, a bad answer to the wrong question; as a political matter, it is a dud, a nonissue hyped into seeming salience by the press; and even as a matter of McCain's own stated goals, it's a contradiction, a check on exactly the active citizenship he seeks to promote." Lowry is right, and not just because he signs my paychecks. McCain's proposals would sharply restrict so called "soft money" expenditures on independent advocacy. Soft dollars are contributions to interest groups - the Republican and Democratic Parties, for instance - not to individual campaigns. Remember, limiting expenditures on political expression equals limiting expression. Imagine if Congress had said the March on Washington was fine, but it imposed a strict limit on how much you could spend on bus tickets to get there. Under McCain's proposed rules, nobody - not the NRA, not NARAL, or the ACLU or AFL-CIO - could run an "issue ad" during the last 60 days of a campaign or the last 30 days of a primary. If you wanted to sign a petition opposed to, or in favor of, a candidate's position on abortion, guns, immigration etc., that's fine. But, in McCain's ideal world, if you ran that petition on TV or in a newspaper within two months of election day, you'd be breaking the law. That's a constitutional train wreck in the making. Money and ads wouldn't be the only things restricted. If you belonged to a feminist group that supports female candidates, a you'd be violating the law if you shared "polling, media advice, fund raising," or anything else that might help feminist candidate, according to the new McCain-Feingold bill. McCain says Americans are "demanding" campaign finance reform in order to increase citizen involvement in politics and to unseat the permanent, allegedly corrupt, political class propped up by the all-powerful political parties. This is a veritable piƱata of myths; bash it from any angle and falsehoods pour out like candy. First, McCain's assumption that politics is more money-corrupt than ever is absurd. The days of brown paper bags full of bribe money are long over, and even McCain declines to name any names of actual politicians who are corrupt. Second, McCain says voters are clamoring for reform, but polls - and election results - have been saying the exact opposite for years. Lastly, McCain's proposal would help incumbents, limit citizen involvement and further cripple the far-too-weak political parties. If campaign finance reform is supposed to open up the system, how come after 25 years of ever-tighter election regulations, the incumbent-reelection rate has only gotten worse? Incumbent congressmen get free mail for "constituent outreach," which also doubles as direct-mail advertising. In 1994, 63 percent of voters received mail from incumbents compared to only 25 percent from challengers, according to a Cato Institute report. Incumbents have taxpayer-funded TV studios, Web sites, constituent-service operations and district offices. Their government-salaried staffs often "volunteer" for their boss's reelection campaign. And, of course, incumbents receive vastly more media coverage - boosting name ID - than unknown challengers do. With McCain's "reform," those advantages would turn a headwind against challengers into a hurricane. If you favor citizen involvement, you should be in favor of stronger political parties because political parties (followed by interest groups) are the most convenient, most receptive, most well-known vehicles for citizen participation. Also, as Ralph Nader or Pat Robertson will tell you, parties and activist groups are the only political-information sources immune to the biases of the major media. Curbing their involvement will only close out the system even further. It seems McCain loves "citizen involvement" as long as citizens are only involved in his campaign.