Thank goodness the rich are still free to speak

Posted: Aug 13, 2006 12:00 AM

The media reported earth-shattering results this week at the polls in Connecticut and around the country — the colossal defeats of congressional incumbents of both parties. In the Senate, a single incumbent was denied re-nomination (the third such occurrence in the last 25 years). In the House, two incumbents lost, a whopping one-half of one percent of that chamber.

What's wrong with this picture?

Despite the hype, our politics is stagnant. So stagnant, in fact, that an incumbent being defeated is like a sighting of Halley's Comet — even though polls show massive, majority dissatisfaction with politicians of both parties.

Of course, it's still possible for an incumbent to flame out on her own accord. U.S. Representative Cynthia McKinney (D-Ga.) was one of the three incumbents defeated last Tuesday, because . . . well, she's Cynthia McKinney. To put it nicely, in the stagnant waters of Congress, she made her own waves. Her campaign flamed and fizzled regardless of the powers of incumbency or money.

But the basic fact about our political representation is that our reps have got it made, and, by and large, they make sure they keep getting back in, election after election.

"Turnover in the modern U.S. House of Representatives is minimal," writes University of Virginia Professor Larry Sabato. "Redistricting and the advantages of incumbency help to insure it."

Nonetheless, for whacked-out, anti-money leftists — and most incumbent politicians — the answer is to give federal regulators (read: incumbent politicians) ever more control over our elections, to "force out big money."

Funny, but what little competition we see in congressional elections, especially last Tuesday's, is dependent on the so-called "big money" that finds its way into the public dialogue via "loopholes" in federal campaign regulations.

Let's call them "loopholes of freedom."

U.S. Senate Candidate Ned Lamont certainly has a cause. But without the so-called millionaires' exception that allowed him to spend $2.5 million of his own money, could he have ever made it a race?


And note: Lamont was still outspent by the incumbent, Senator Joe Lieberman.

Lamont's candidacy calls up memories of the 1968 New Hampshire Democratic Primary, in which Eugene McCarthy quixotically challenged President Lyndon Johnson over Vietnam War policy. Tangling with the incumbent president of one's own party would have been a disaster were it not for three anti-war millionaires who bankrolled McCarthy's campaign, making history by knocking Johnson out of the presidential race.

Today, such large contributions are illegal.

On Tuesday, freshman U.S. Rep. Joe Schwarz was defeated in Michigan's Republican Primary by challenger Tim Walberg. Walberg too had issues to use against the incumbent. But more importantly, he also had support from groups like the national Club for Growth, which spent heavily so that voters might know exactly what those issues were.

Before the McCain-Feingold campaign finance regime, many more groups spoke out on issues during campaigns, when voters were more likely to pay attention (which is reasonable, since that's close to the time when they get to make their critical decisions). But these groups are now forced to disclose donors and subject themselves to FEC regulation if they communicate mentioning a candidate's name within 30 days of a primary and 60 days of the general election. (You don't want voters to have too much information too close to an election. Not if you are an incumbent.)

More regulations from a tribunal in Washington, which would follow the dictates of incumbents in Congress, cannot be the answer. The lessons of last Tuesday, and the election before that, and the one before that . . . they make this very clear.

After the creation of the FEC with the first set of sweeping campaign finance regulations in 1974, our elections have become noticeably less competitive. In the 14 election cycles preceding the 1974 "reforms," Senators were three times more likely to lose in a primary than since. Since 1974, the Senate re-election rate has gone up by 17 percent. The incumbent re-election rate, during the same period, has increased 5 percentage points for the House.

But campaign finance regulators, politicians, and pundits call for more regulations. They'd like to ban an individual from contributing his own money to his race. They have already jiggered the rules to benefit the candidate, usually the incumbent, faced with a candidate spending his own wealth.

Thank goodness for rich folks like George Soros and the less well-known conservative financiers. Politics is a marketplace similar to other endeavors. You can't do much without capital. Campaign finance laws have as their purpose (as well as result) the restriction of the capital formation necessary to reach the public with a message or a candidacy. This cuts hardest against new messengers and new ideas.

Whether Ned Lamont's opposition to the war in Iraq be right or wrong, isn't it good that the public got to consider it? Our Founding Fathers committed their lives, fortunes and sacred honor. Thank goodness some of them had fortunes to help us tackle the critical mission of independence. We need such patriots today as well.

It has become popular to bemoan wealthy candidates and thus wealthy officeholders. Let's buck this trend.

We should be glad that at least the rich are still free to speak.

And let's hope they'll agitate for reversing course on campaign finance, away from regulation by the political incumbency and toward freedom of speech for the rest of us.