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.''
It is to be hoped that the Supreme Court, which right now is writing its ruling about the constitutionality of McCain-Feingold, is as clearheaded as Gephardt is about the law he is proud to have ``led the fight for.'' Gephardt has never flinched from saying that the First Amendment is a dispensable relic. A few years ago, promoting his notion of ``healthy'' campaigns and democracy, he forthrightly said: ``What we have is two important values in direct conflict: freedom of speech and our desire for healthy campaigns in a healthy democracy.''
As the Supreme Court writes its ruling it should remember that six years ago Gephardt proposed to amend the First Amendment with this language:
``Congress ... may adopt reasonable regulations of funds expended, including contributions, to influence the outcome of elections, provided that such regulations do not impair the right of the public to a full and free discussion of all issues and do not prevent any candidate for elected office from amassing the resources necessary for effective advocacy.''
Some people may prefer the simplicity of the First Amendment language -- ``Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech'' -- that Gephardt's amendment was designed to improve. Is it prudent to empower the government, as Gephardt was prepared to do, to make the kind of judgments that James Madison's First Amendment forbids -- judgments about what regulation of speech is ``reasonable'' and what resources are ``necessary'' for ``full and free'' discussion of the government?
Because the First Amendment was not amended by Gephardt's language, the question now before the Supreme Court is not whether McCain-Feingold is prudent, but whether it is constitutional. Gephardt, who ``led the fight'' for it, says it is not.