McCain-Feingold ends up encouraging exactly what Americans say we don’t want: Negative campaigning. After the 2000 presidential election, the polling firms Lake Snell Perry & Assoc. and Deardourff/The Media Co. asked 500 voters about the election. Some 88 percent of them said negative attack campaigning is unethical, and 81 percent thought negative campaigning makes people less likely to vote.
Yet despite the overwhelming majority that opposes negative ads, Congress, in its drive to “reform” campaign financing, has given us a law that will encourage those negative ads and limit individual candidates’ ability to respond with a positive message. The law was passed with the goal of “getting the money out of politics.” And, admittedly, Bush's $100 million-plus does seem like a lot of money.
But as columnist George Will has observed, in the 2000 election cycle Americans spent $3 billion on all federal elections combined, so Bush’s war chest is only a fraction of total political spending. Even that $3 billion isn’t much, when you consider that we’re electing candidates who will manage the $2 trillion annual enterprise that is our federal government. Plus, as Will notes, the $3 billion spent on politics is only half as much as Americans spent during those years on chewing gum.
It’s good news that Dean, like Bush, is opting out. And even better news that Dean’s fellow Democrat John Kerry has followed suit. By proving beyond doubt that the campaign financing system is broken, they may force Congress to admit its reform efforts are a failure. We’d all be better off if lawmakers started over and drafted a bill that allowed anyone to give any amount to any candidate for any reason, as long as the recipient had to immediately disclose his contribution on a federal website.
As Soros proves, we’re never going to get the “special interests” out of politics. But at least we can have transparency -- without encouraging negative ads. That’s a change we can all afford.