On successive days last week, the McCain-Feingold campaign finance bill fell victim to a filibuster in the Senate and Elizabeth Dole gave up her campaign for the Republican presidential nomination. There's an intimate connection between the two events--and it's probably not what you think.
The surface lesson--emphasized by Dole's withdrawal statement that "the bottom line remains money" and Sen. John McCain's comment that "all of us are tainted" by special interest contributions--is that politics and government are being subverted by cash.
The reality is that the shortage of money--the right kind of money--is as big a problem as any excesses in the current system. And by focusing only on the excesses, the reformers, however well-intentioned, have helped stymie needed changes in the law.
Dole is simply the latest well-qualified candidate to be squeezed out of the Republican race by her inability to keep pace with the prodigious fund-raising performance of Texas Gov. George W. Bush and the millions publisher Steve Forbes can supply from his own inheritance. Earlier, House Budget Committee Chairman John Kasich, former Tennessee governor Lamar Alexander and former vice president Dan Quayle were forced to walk the financial plank.
Dole said at her valedictory press conference that she had attended "over 70 fund-raising events," and had another 38 on her schedule by December. "Even then," she said, "these rivals [Bush and Forbes] would enjoy a 75-to-1 or 80-to-1 cash advantage."
The reason she could not catch up, no matter how many fund-raisers she attended, is that the $1,000-a-person contribution limit has not been changed since it was enacted in 1974. "That doesn't even allow for inflation," Dole said, let alone the rising cost of TV ads. Her suggestion: Raise the individual limit to $5,000.
Of course, under her rule, Bush theoretically might have raised $300 million, instead of his actual $60 million. But the marginal value of his additional hoard would have been far less than the significance to Dole--or Kasich, or Alexander or Quayle--of being able to raise enough from their core supporters to deliver their message to the public through the expensive TV medium.
What is true of these folks is also true of almost all challengers in House races. They are so grossly underfunded, in comparison with the incumbents, that most congressional districts never experience a real campaign, where alternative views are heard and the incumbent is forced to explain and defend his or her record.
Empowering challengers--in presidential or congressional races--requires raising individual contribution limits or, as some states have done for state races, providing public subsidies. Free or low-cost TV and subsidized mailings would also help.
But instead of the empowerment strategy, reformers backing bills like McCain-Feingold have focused their energy on driving money out of politics. Their current target--the six-figure "soft money" gifts to parties from corporations, unions and wealthy individuals--is certainly one of the least desirable and most potentially corrupting ways of financing campaigns.
But as long as campaign communication is expensive and individual contributions are severely limited, the parties will take money where they can find it. Simply trying to ban "soft money" is a proven loser; it has failed in Congress four times in four years.
The reformers are like Charlie Brown in "Peanuts," annually victimized by Lucy snatching away the football. Every year, they are surprised and dismayed that their Senate opponents have gypped them out of victory.
It's time for another approach. Start by helping the worthy challengers--Elizabeth Dole and her hundreds of counterparts in underfunded congressional races--make their cases to the public. Then talk to the party leaders about weaning themselves off of $100,000 "soft money" gifts.
The Democrats claim to be ready to forgo them. Bush says the law should bar such contributions from corporations and unions, but not from individuals. That is a start. Dole suggests a phaseout of soft money to ease the transition for the parties. Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska had lined up votes for an amendment--blocked by the filibuster--to cap "soft money" contributions to the parties while lifting the ceiling on individual gifts to candidates.
These approaches offer some promise. The effort simply to drive "bad" dollars out of politics is a dead end. It's time the lesson was learned.