Getting what we pay for

Posted: Nov 14, 2003 12:00 AM

Presidential hopeful Howard Dean is off the dole. And that’s a good thing.

The former Vermont governor already has raised more campaign cash than any of his Democratic rivals. Now, he says he’ll turn down the government’s generous offer of $18.7 million in federal matching funds and pay for his entire primary campaign out of his own coffers. That means he’ll be allowed to spend as much as he wants, while his opponents who accept public financing will be limited to about $45 million.

Predictably, the flinty doctor blamed President Bush for his decision. “The unabashed actions of [Bush] to thwart our democratic process with a flood of special interest money have forced us to abandon a broken system,” Dean huffed.

Of course, President Bush hasn’t broken the public campaign financing system. In fact, he’s played by its foolish rules, as set out in last year's McCain-Feingold campaign “reform” legislation. Bush has brought in more than $100 million so far and aims to top $170 million. But the president isn’t cashing in with “special-interest” donations. All of his cash was “hard money” -- donations made directly to his campaign by individuals.
By law, those donations are capped at $2,000.

Here’s where the system goes off the tracks. Although an individual can give only $2,000 directly to a candidate, he can give an unlimited amount to a private political organization. However, he cannot give that money to one of the major political parties.

That’s why billionaire George Soros recently donated $10 million to start a new group called America Coming Together. Soros makes no bones about the goal of his organization.
“I've come to the conclusion that one can do a lot more about the issues I care about by changing the government than by pushing the issues,” he recently told Fortune magazine.
He wants the president out, and is willing to pay to make that happen.

With $10 million in the bank, ACT could be a major player in next year’s election.
However, there’s a problem. Since it’s funded by soft money, ACT is not allowed to directly endorse a candidate. It can only engage in opposition research, get-out-the-vote efforts or voter education.

Think about it -- the people running ACT will very much want President Bush’s Democratic opponent to prevail next November. But the law prevents them from running ads encouraging people to vote for that Democrat. However, the group is free to spend as much as it wants on ads that educate (warn) voters that Bush is dangerous. The ads can be completely negative, as long as they don’t explicitly urge people to vote against Bush. Ironically, it sounds as if Americans Coming Together will be dedicated to driving Americans apart.

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.