Tuesday, January 23, 2007

The decline and fall of campaign reform...and Republican unity

In less than 12 hours, President Bush will deliver a State of the Union address to an increasingly hostile nation. Most of his proposals will be dead on arrival (because his opponents now control both chambers, and because even many of his ostensible GOP allies are moving toward open revolt on Iraq); and most of what he says will be quickly forgotten (because State of the Union speeches typically have the staying power of tissue paper). But while we await this less than momentous event, here are a couple noteworthy items:

Stories about campaign finance reform tend to bore most people. Americans typically decry the rising costs of campaigns, and the influence of big money in politics, but they rarely want to read up on the details, probably because it’s pretty dry stuff. I am speaking from experience here; having written countless campaign finance stories over the past 17 years, I rarely receive so much as a single email (or, in the old days, a single letter) in response.

But what’s happening today is surely worth a mention. There’s no sexy way to say this, because it’s not a sexy topic: The post-Watergate campaign finance reforms are dying a slow and inexorable death. And Hillary Clinton is the latest candidate to mess with the oxygen supply.

These reforms, enacted in the mid-1970s, were designed to cleanse presidential campaigns by ensuring that private donors and big-money interests would not hijack the process. The idea, which has governed every election since 1976, was to bankroll the presidential race through public financing. Candidates have been able to raise private donations in order to establish their initial viability, but, during the primary season, they have typically opted to accept money from the federal treasury (“matching funds”), and to accept a federally-mandated ceiling on spending. And for the general election in November, the deal has been that the major party nominees forego all private donations, and instead finance their entire autumn campaigns with federal money (equal amounts to each nominee, in order to theoretically level the playing field).

That’s how the game has generally worked. The first big crack in the structure, however, occurred in July of 1999, when GOP hopeful George W. Bush announced that he would not abide by the primary season rules in 2000. He refused federal funds – and the spending ceiling that went with it – and instead opted to privatize his primary campaign. He was raising so much private donor money that he figured it would cramp his style to accept public financing.

This was a major event at the time – as campaign reform watchdog Larry Makinson told me that July, “Bush’s decision is the equivalent of Russia exploding the hydrogen bomb” – and it has since become common for candidates to refuse public money during the primary season, in favor of raising private dough and spending as much of it as possible. Both John Kerry and Howard Dean stiffed the reform route in early 2004.

Bush, at least, did adhere to the reform rules during his two general election campaigns, accepting public money and obeying the public spending ceiling in the autumns of 2000 and 2004. Kerry did the same for his autumn ‘04 bid.

But now we have the next major crack in the structure, the second and larger hydrogen bomb explosion: a candidate who is signaling long in advance that she will not abide by the reform rules in an autumn election.

Hillary Clinton, in her candidacy announcement over the weekend, made it clear that if she does win the ’08 Democratic nomination, she will privatize her autumn campaign, leaving her free to raise as much private money as she wants, and to spend as much as she wants. The math is easy to grasp: The federal money for an ’08 autumn campaign will be capped at about $83 million for each candidate, but she figures that she easily raise more than that amount in private donations. No doubt she won’t be the only major candidate to figure this out.

It’s not hard to see why all this is happening. For starters, the Internet has made it far easier than ever for a candidate to raise a lot of money in private donations virtually overnight. More importantly, the amount of money offered by the feds can’t begin to keep pace with the ever-ballooning costs of campaigning. By law, the public money is pegged to the rate of inflation – but campaign costs far exceed the rate of inflation. Hence, the growing candidate aversion to the reform rules. If both major candidates “opt out” during the ’08 autumn season, the reforms are effectively dead and the concept of the level playing field will die with it.

One solution, of course, would be for the feds to tinker with the rules and offer considerably more public money. But here is where human nature comes into play:

Taxpayers provide the public money for presidential elections. Taxpayers do this by checking a box on their income tax returns, earmarking $3 for the federal presidential campaign kitty. The problem is, hardly any taxpayers volunteer to do this anymore. In other words, even though most Americans say that they want campaign reform, they don’t want to help pay for it.

A quarter of a century ago, nearly 30 percent of taxpayers checked the box and put campaign money into the federal treasury. The percentage today? About nine percent.

I first noticed the declining participation rate back in 1990, when it had fallen to about 20 percent. I spent some time in Washington, asking people about this downtick, and the answers I heard back then are probably equally relevant today. For instance, Fred Wertheimer, a veteran reformer, said: “The day you pay your taxes is not the day you’ll think most highly about financing your political leaders.” One Capitol Hill aide said that most people don’t like the idea of financing the negative ads that wind up on their TV screens. And Democratic pollster Geoffrey Garin summed it up this way: “People feel like they’re victims of the process, that politics isn’t something to participate in. It’s something that is done to them.”

These feelings persist, which is why Hillary Clinton and any other candidate who stiffs the general election rules isn’t likely to pay any serious political price. As a Democratic strategist named Michael Meehan told me in the winter of 2003, “Most voters don’t care about this stuff. Just the editorial page readers.”

True enough. But when the reform rules die, and the money arms race spirals totally out of control, and we wind up some day with one nominee seriously outspending the other nominee during the autumn campaign, voters will have arguably forfeited the right to complain.


The decline and fall of the Bush administration continues apace, now that bellwether Republican senator John Warner has announced his opposition to Bush’s Iraq troop escalation. Yesterday afternoon, while introducing his own non-binding resolution condemning the Bush plan, Warner said this:

“The American G.I. was not trained, not sent over there — certainly not by resolution of this institution — to be placed in the middle of a fight between the Sunni and the Shia and the wanton and just incomprehensible killing that’s going on at this time.”

Not so long ago, if this kind of remark had come from the mouth of a Democrat, the Bush team would have been busy condemning that person as a wimpy defeatist who was intent on giving aid and comfort to Osama bin Laden. But that’s tough to do at the moment, with Bush sinking in the polls to Jimmy Carter levels. It’s also tough to do when the speaker is the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, somebody who did yeoman duty for the Bush team back in 2003, willingly echoing their prewar talking points on cable television night after night.

Some of the best liberal bloggers are uncomfortable with Warner’s condemnation resolution, precisely because he was such a Bush water-carrier back in the day. Glenn Greenwald, for instance, has unearthed a prewar gem, in which Warner went on CNN and (in response to the usual tepid questioning by Larry King) announced that the absence of any solid WMD evidence, during the prelude to war, should be considered proof that Saddam Hussein was actually hiding his arsenal somewhere:

“(Our inspectors) have not uncovered anything…(Hussein) has become very skillful to keep these manufacturing base of weapons of mass destructions active, mobile and beyond the ability of any inspections to really catch it. And this is proof of it.”

Also, some in the antiwar community aren’t happy that Warner’s resolution language isn’t as strong as the language in the other resolution, the one offered by Democrat Joe Biden and Republican Chuck Hagel. The latter declares that Bush’s “escalating” of the conflict “is not in the national interest.” The former states that “the Senate disagrees with the plan to augment our forces.” (Augmentation is Condoleezza Rice’s preferred word.)

But these distinctions aren’t what matters most. The bottom line is that, regardless of what words are employed, the rank and file Republicans are moving toward open revolt. Warner’s journey from loyalist to dissident is proof of this. And even the normally compliant House Republicans, having read the election results and pondered the polls, are suddenly rediscovering the concept of accountability; GOP leader John Boehner suggested yesterday that Bush report back on the situation in Iraq every 30 days.

So don’t expect many verbal hurrahs this evening, even from within Republican ranks, when Bush invokes Iraq during the State of the Union. At a time when Republicans are focused on saving their political hides, and about being branded as the Iraq war party, paying homage to an unpopular lame duck is not a prudent strategy.