EUGENE McCARTHY HAS WRITTEN an occassionally interesting, often elegant, but grossly one-sided book on a subject that deserves better -- how the government regulates the electoral process.
From our founding, the Constitution has provided that state could regulate the time, place and manner of elections. Nothing very controversial there. What is controversial is when government tries to reconsile a conflict of rights -- the right of candidates to raise and spend money from willing contributors and the right of the public not to have elected officials bought by particular interests. J. P. Morgan is said to have commented in the late 1800s that he needn't try to be a senator because he owned so many already; the problem of money in politics has long been with us.
Instead of examining the rich dilemma of reconciling two plausible positions, McCarthy's brief -- for it often reads more like a lawyer's brief than a political scientist's inquiry -- simplifies and shoehorns facts to fit his preconceived conclusions. For example, one of the author's only empirical observations on the problem of money in politics is his casual comment that "the record does show that some large contributors seek and receive special favors." Yet he quickly goes on to argue that the American Revolution was, after all, financed by fat cats and that "the largest contributor to my 1968 campaign gave $500,000. For that I spent an hour and a half talking with him. I do not know how much time I would have spent with the same contributor had I been elected president, but I am sure that the amount of time would have been based on his professional knowledge and competence, rather than on the size of his contribution."
There is a Talmudic expression which says that "for example" is not evidence, a point McCarthy unintentionally demonstrates. His speculative anecdote about a large contributor hardly rebuts the scores of companies sued for illegal campaign contributions by the Watergate special prosecutor, the $5.4 million Gulf Oil ladled out illegally between the late 1950s and early 1970s to members of Congress, the $60 million Richard Nixon Raised in 1972, and the high correlations between special-interest giving and special-interest voting (95 percent of those House members who received over $2,500 from oil and gas interests in 1977-1978 voted for the oil industry position on the key windfall profits tax vote).
McCarthy's penchant for overdrawing his points goes well beyond his disdain for campaign spending laws. He attacks bureaucracy nearly as primitively as Orrin Hatch ("As Frankenstein delegated power to the monster, so do we to impersonal, self-motivated institutions operating on a dynamism of their own . . . They range from police and intelligence agencies such as the FBI and the CIA to bureaus and commissions and agencies like the Federal Trade Commission, the Environmental Protection Agency . . ."). To a fair-minded observer, the similarities between the CIA and EPA not immediately apparent. McCarthy's defense of the archaic electoral college rises barely above the level of saying that it has been around a long time and longevity is its own reward. He draws a parallel between tricks and ethics of the White House plumbers and those of Watergate reporters. But there are differences between Charles Colson and Carl Bernstein that shouldn't require lengthy analysis.
McCarthy also compares the current limitation of $1,000 per contributor in federal elections and his presumably facetious suggestion that a law could limit advertisers to spending no more than $1,000 per ad so as not to improperly influence writers -- a charming but unpersuasive analogy. (The public cannot avoid being influenced by a corrupt representative, but has the freedom of choice to turn to an uncorrupted media outlet). And finally, with typical understatement, the author observes that "the most serious obstacle to the exercise of the political right of freedom of assembly . . . is intervention by the Federal Election Campaign Act Amendments."
I am not wholly unsympathetic to this last point. The FEC is easy to tease, having once forbidden, for example, Rep. Ed Koch from issuing campaign buttons reading "Carter-Mondale-Koch" because it would be considered an illegal campaign contribution to the other two candidates. When some FEC decisions hinted that my own organization's congressional voting index could be considered a contribution to those members with high ratings (Congress Watch never endorses or opposes candidates), we asked for an opinion on the legality of our annual effort at consumer speech. The commission ruled that it could not rule, since neither we nor any congressman had the "standing" to ask for a ruling. Finally, I am now running for Congress against a very wealthy incumbent -- who can spend as much of his private wealth as he desires (Buckley v. Valeo), while I am limited to individual contributions no larger than $1,000 (campaign spending laws).
Anomalous? Yes. Necessary? Also yes, for without the existing imperfect standards, special-interest wealth would determine public elections lock, stock and cash register. Of course the Congress Watch dilemma is ridiculous and lampoonable -- but it is also correctable without having to return to an era of no-limits, no-disclosure that Eugene McCarthy apparently aspires to.
Peppered throughout the book are some sharp and well-crafted insights -- the happy dividend of a closet poet who once was a politician. Subjects that do not easily survive his arch attacks include the League of Women Voters' exclusion of him from the 1976 debates, FEC inanities and the little-noticed provisions of the 25th Amendment which actually allows a majority of the cabinet to declare that the president is unable to discharge his office (unless the president disagrees, and then Congress umpires the dispute). Then there are McCarthyisms, those elegant put-downs of the Official Order: he points out that, as a bureaucracy, the Defense Department is like the "old dirigible hanger at Lakehurst, New Jersey, which was so large that it developed its own weather"; he observes that "radio and television have developed new conceptions of time and new measurements. For the first time in history, time has been offered for sale. (Space had been sold and effects of time had been postponed, as in Faust and The Picture of Dorian gray, but never time itself.)"
Perhaps the book's most significant contribution is its chronicle of how state laws operate to discriminate against all but the major-party candidates. McCarthy's discussion here reminds us of his lonely and noble struggle against stacked odds -- reminds us that he may have inadvertently made it somewhat easier for John Anderson in 1980 to be the kind of third-candidate contender McCarthy never was. As a candidate, McCarthy had a persuasive point. As an author, though, his points are too often undeveloped assertions which lack the power of his earlier personal example.