March 15, 2004,
Remember the old adage about not wishing too hard for something because you might get it? Today, the adage is relevant to both Republican political strategists and campaign-finance-regulation proponents. For very different reasons, both are incensed over the use of large, unregulated political donations ("soft money") from wealthy liberals to fund anti-Bush advertising and voter-registration campaigns.
Two years ago, Republicans accepted a ban on soft money as part of the most restrictive campaign-finance legislation in a generation. The soft-money spigot, turned wide open by the Clinton White House and the Democratic National Committee, once kept the Democratic party financially competitive with Republicans. Clinton strategist Dick Morris, backed by all that soft money, choreographed the political carpet-bombing, through extensive advertising, of President Clinton's Republican opponents before the 1996 election.
The Republican party, by contrast, received most of its cash from lots of small, individual donations, the only kind permitted under the new regulations. Therefore, the soft-money ban was viewed as clearly advantageous to the Republicans, especially in presidential election seasons. That made it easy for the Bush White House to abandon principle and sign the campaign-finance legislation.
In the past, campaign-finance restrictions have generated unintended and unanticipated consequences. And the latest regulatory round is no exception to this rule.
So now, Bush's enormous financial advantage over his presumed Democratic challenger, Sen. John Kerry, during the crucial pre-convention period may be eroded by the tens of millions of dollars anti-Bush groups are starting to spend on ads airing in the most politically competitive states. Hence, the Bush reelection campaign's appeal to the Federal Election Commission to rein in the president's well-funded critics.
Proponents of campaign-finance regulations, led by Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.), had promised that we'd see less costly, less-negative campaigns better managed by the two major parties. The restrictions on free speech pushed by McCain et al were intended to reduce the power of independent political groups and special interests and return it to the candidates and their parties.
However, now that McCain-style campaign-finance regulation is a reality, the millions that may be spent on unregulated anti-Bush advertising illustrates what the campaign-finance cure-all has in fact produced. The parties and the presidential candidates have lost control of their own campaigns as a result of the soft-money ban.
Who's in the driver's seat? Special-interest groups, corporations, and labor unions who have retained previously donated soft-money funds. Prior soft-money contributions from wealthy individuals are flowing to independent campaign organizations instead of their previous destination, the national parties.
These "527 committees," named after a section of the IRS code, are exempted from the new campaign-finance regulations, most importantly the soft-money ban.
Ironically, the channeling of donations and advertising through non-party organizations will increase the number of these groups and the proliferation of non-party micro-campaigns. A large number of these campaigns will perform a series of one-off advertising attacks in specific races. These hit-and-run operations will all occur completely outside the control, but not the purview, of individual campaigns and the national parties.
The unintended and unforeseen consequences of the latest constraints on political speech serve only to further the journey of American political campaigning down a path seemingly anathema to the stated desires of the leading campaign-finance regulators. Perhaps it is time to stop looking to regulations to save our political system?
Patrick Basham, senior fellow in the Center for Representative Democracy at the Cato Institute, is the author of "This Is Reform? Predicting the Impact of the New Campaign Financing Regulations."