Pity the poor campaign finance reformers. All their dreams are supposedly going up in smoke.
After all, both President Bush and Sen. John Kerry passed up federal matching funds in the primaries so they could raise record sums of private money. Groups theoretically independent of the parties have run millions of dollars worth of ads, often using huge donations from the very rich. Kerry considered declining to accept the Democratic nomination at his party's convention in July so he could have an extra month to raise and spend private money.
Critics of reform see these developments as signs of a loopy system. In fact, the 2004 campaign will be remembered as one in which the political money system became more democratic and more open. Small contributors have more influence this year. Big contributors have less. Those new big-money political committees are getting a lot of attention because they are now the exception rather than the rule.
Does this mean that the new system pushed through by John McCain and Russ Feingold in the Senate and Chris Shays and Marty Meehan in the House has brought forth perfection? Of course not. Their law was simply a first but important step.
Thanks to the new law, candidates for the presidency, the House and the Senate are not themselves out soliciting unlimited contributions from rich and well-connected people or from big corporations. A lot of business guys are relieved that politicians considering bills that affect their companies aren't on the phone suggesting that it would be awfully nice to see them and their corporate checkbooks at the next "soft money" fundraiser.
The hope of McCain-Feingold was to create a more broadly based political money system -- more people contributing in smaller amounts. Partly because of the law and partly because of the inventiveness of political entrepreneurs such as Zephyr Teachout, Howard Dean's director of online organizing, that is what is happening.
Dean began the democratizing process during the primary campaign by creating a base of tens of thousands of small donors. Kerry got the Dean message. He started peppering his speeches with references to "JohnKerry.com" and asking for donations. (Bush, in fairness, can be reached at GeorgeWBush.com.)
Kerry then proceeded to break all Democratic Party records, raising more than $117 million at last count. The Kerry Web site recently featured Cathy Weigel of North Kansas City, Mo., as its 1 millionth online contributor. For a mere $50 contribution, Weigel got a call from Kerry and a promise of "a great seat at the Inauguration and a prime visit to the White House." Such calls and promises used to go to big soft-money fundraisers who bagged a million or so in contributions.
Yes, problems persist. They always will in this imperfect world. By failing to regulate the "527" political committees (named after the section of the tax code they are organized under), the Federal Election Commission needlessly opened a loophole that could push the system back toward big money. This loophole won't destroy the entire law. Under McCain-Feingold, outside groups will have to operate on smaller contributions starting two months before the election. But the loophole should still be closed.
The system regulating presidential primaries is entirely antiquated, one reason Bush and Kerry both dropped out of it. It worked well for a long time, but now it needs fixing.
It's absurd that simply by delaying his party's convention into September, Bush gave himself not only an extra month more than Kerry to raise private money but also a leg up afterward. In the general election campaign, Kerry will have to stretch the $75 million he gets in public money over three months; Bush will have the same amount to spend in just two months.
The system needs stronger incentives to encourage candidates to base their campaigns on small contributions. Tax credits could cover the cost of providing candidates free airtime. And federal candidates should get the "clean money" option that allows politicians in Arizona and Maine to virtually eschew private fundraising. Those clean-money plans have given new people a chance to enter politics without mortgaging their houses or their souls.
Those who would abandon all efforts to limit money's influence on politics are urging that we live with plutocracy. By indiscriminately pronouncing even successful reform efforts as failures, reform's foes are trying to undermine any attempt to make politics a little more honest, a little less subject to the whims of the wealthy, a little more democratic. The nation's campaign money system is still flawed. But it's better than it used to be.