Bush, the campaign-finance reformer

Posted: Jul 11, 2003 12:00 AM

After nearly a decade of hard work, advocates of campaign-finance reform can finally rejoice. Campaign-finance nirvana has arrived! It's called the George W. Bush re-election campaign.

For years, reform advocates told us that unregulated, large contributions -- so-called "soft money"-- were the root of all evil in financing U.S. elections. They allegedly allowed "fat cat" special interests to "buy" candidates. Campaign-finance reformer Sen. John McCain called soft money "disgusting" and nothing more than "a political shakedown."

The McCain-Feingold campaign-finance reform bill was signed into law in 2002 with the enthusiastic support of Democrats, marking the achievement of a key liberal ambition. The law banned soft money in order to place more emphasis on "hard money" -- regulated donations strictly limited to $2,000 per person. (The law is probably unconstitutional -- a topic for another day.)

Now, as National Review reporter Byron York has pointed out, President George W. Bush is tightly following the fund-raising script written by reform advocates. He's raising funds in $2,000 bites at large events drawing on real people interested in supporting his campaign.

For this, Bush should be on the verge of winning the endorsement of The Center for Public Integrity, a high-profile Washington-based organization behind campaign-finance reform. McCain should be volunteering to be chairman of Bush's fund-raising effort, hailing its exemplary practices and its example of "clean" politics.

Instead, Bush's campaign is drawing criticism for raising money exactly the way campaign reformers have always said it should be raised. You'd think he was gobbling up donations in $100,000 soft-money chunks.

"It's the most coldblooded and efficient way of raising money in the history of politics," Charles Lewis, head of The Center for Public Integrity, has huffed. "These aren't your average Americans. They're the most well-heeled interests, with vested interests in government."

Liberal New York Times columnist Bob Herbert brays that Bush fund-raising dinners are "events at which the fat cats throw millions of dollars at the president to reinforce their already impenetrable ring of influence around the national government."

Campaign-finance reformers have redefined "fat cat." It no longer means someone who gives a six- or seven-figure political contribution and doesn't feel the difference in his pocketbook. It is anyone who contributes to the Bush campaign.

This definitional adjustment has been necessary because the post-campaign finance-reform era starkly demonstrates how the Republican Party is the party of the small donor. Otherwise, Bush would have no chance of meeting his goal of raising up to $200 million before next year's GOP convention. It is the Democrats, the party of the trial lawyers and unions, who are dependent on "fat cat" contributions.

Byron York writes, "A new study by the Center for Responsive Politics found that in the last election cycle, people who gave less than $200 to politicians or parties gave 64 percent of their money to Republicans. Just 35 percent went to Democrats. On the other hand, the Center found that people who gave $1 million or more gave 92 percent to Democrats -- and a whopping 8 percent to Republicans."

Stephen Moore heads the pro-tax-cut group The Club for Growth, often attacked as a Wall Street special interest. "When we get responses to our direct mail," says Moore, "it's all $50 or $100 donors. The left just doesn't have that kind of small donor base."

This is why so many Democrats now rue the day that they voted for the McCain-Feingold bill. They let their taste for regulating everything, including political donations, get the best of their partisan self-interest. The Democratic National Committee had only $4,201,910 in cash on hand at the end of May. The Republican National Committee had $21,039,452.

The fact is that Republicans are simply better at campaign-finance reform than Democrats. No wonder campaign-finance reformers are now retooling their attacks on big donations to make them attacks on small donations. The George W. Bush re-election campaign isn't the cause they intended to help.