Extended streches of my youth and early middle age were spent happily, if untriumphantly, working on political campaigns in some 38 states and Venezuela. Because my active duty spanned both major modern eras--the before-Watergate and the post-Watergate-- I was privileged to learn that the essential political orthodoxy as to what was wrong with politics never varied. That orthodoxy, which was held by most political "realists" and by all of their admirers, was that politics had but one serious enemy: the reformer who "wanted to take the politics out of politics."
That orthodoxy was and is wrong. The truth is that the reformers in general and Common Cause in particular almost surely saved several dozen campaign managers over the past eight years from going to jail. It did that by lobbying successfully for the 1974 federal election law, which, among its other provisions, effectively outlawed cash contributions. Before 1974, cash contributions were not unknown in American political campaigns. Cash was generally given in the closing days of the campaign to the manager of the candidate who, the contributor believed, was going to win. The contributor almost always wanted credit, but not attribution. Often, the bashful contributor belonged to the Other Party or had social and professional colleagues who might not fully appreciate the contribution.
This left the campaign manager with a sticky ethical dilemma. The manager could do the honorable thing and turn down the cash and the TV time it could buy. Most did not. Then, in order to get the cash safely into the campaign checking account, the manager was required to come up with real people who did not mind being listed on the official campaign report as making contributions they had not made. Frequently, cash contributions led directly to solvent campaign treasuries and nervous campaign headquarters. And because selective enforcement of the law is any prosecutor's most powerful weapon, the manager's anxiety was not always banished by a victory on election day. Any ingrate with information could mean an indictment, months later.
But all of that was changed in 1974, thanks to the federal election law and Common Cause. From that point on, campaign managers could turn down the would-be "anonymous" contributor, confident that their opposing numbers were doing the same. That 1974 election law was very pro-politics. After all, that same law has since given us two presidential campaigns where neither the nominees nor the eventual winners were determined by money.
Common Cause, which accepts absolutely no government or foundation monies and no labor or business contributions over $100, survives on individual contributors, of whom it had three times as many in 1980 as did the Democratic Party. Common Cause saved some good campaign people from ever having to decide whether to write a book on prison reform. Thanks, Common Cause.