We are now in our fourth presidential campaign under a federal election campaign act that provides qualifying presidential candidates with limited public funds in exchange for their pledge to accept spending limits. Thanks to this good law, money no longer determines either who runs or who is elected president of these United States.
But don't think that has prevented a handful of politicians from taking the public money and running -- while loudly condemning the public law that funds their campaign. Those stalwarts have done their all to make the political world safe for hypocrisy.
Consider first the largest individual beneficiary of the federal campaign law, Ronald Reagan. Reagan has never swerved in his outspoken opposition to the law and especially to its public funding provision. So profound is the president's dislike of the law that he has refused to earmark even a single dollar of his federal tax payment for the presidential campaign fund, as provided on all individual income tax forms. But in spite of his strong opposition, Reagan has manfully permitted his campaigns to accept and cash U.S. Treasury checks totaling $90,426,806.57. That's $90 million.
That tradition of stoutly opposing the dollar checkoff for the Treasury while quietly accepting all Treasury checks to your campaign is being maintained in 1988 by the Rev. Pat Robertson, who has already pocketed $6.5 million in public funds that other American taxpayers saw fit to designate. In the language both men would understand, this record must qualify Reagan and Robertson as the Welfare Kings of American politics.
Just behind Robertson is Vice President George Bush, whose 1988 campaign has already received more than $6 million in matching funds. To Bush's credit, each year he has checked off the dollar on his own income tax return. So, too, (at least since 1974, when he blanked the space on his return) has Kansas Sen. Bob Dole.
As always, Dole is an interesting, somewhat contradictory, case. His 1988 campaign has already received $5.6 million from the Treasury, and as a candidate Dole trumpets his own leadership. But on the heated issue of extending public funding to Senate campaigns, Dole has been anything but a leader. His prose has been stronger than his performance: "When these political action committees give money, they expect something in return other than good government. . . . Poor people don't make political contributions. You might get a different result if there were a Poor-PAC up here."
Dole has offered true leadership on voting rights, tax reform and the budget deficit. But on campaign finance, he has been little more than a timid follower of the forces of reaction. Even Dole's arguments -- that Republicans and challengers would be hurt by public financing of Senate campaigns -- have been undermined by the presidential experience. In the past three national contests under the campaign finance law, two out of three challengers and two out of three Republicans have been elected.
Not surprisingly, all the Democratic candidates personally check off a dollar for the campaign fund. And it is for good reason, because one of the saddest chapters in the scandal of presidential campaign financing concerns that party's 1968 nominee, Hubert Humphrey, who was overwhelmed that year by Richard Nixon's bulging campaign coffers. Shortly after the convention, a broke and nearly desperate Hubert Humphrey was told by anti-war activists and General Motors heir Stewart Mott: "We have the capacity to give a million dollars or more to your campaign -- and raise twice or three times that much." All Humphrey had to do to qualify was to publicly change his position on Vietnam.
Whether it's looking for a cut in the capital gains tax or a peace plank, political money speaks in many tongues. And it is heard. That it is now heard less at the presidential level is a tribute to the federal election finance act.