Rest in Peace, Campaign Finance Reform

Posted October 2, 2008 at 4:08pm

With Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) as the Republican nominee for the presidency, it should be no surprise that campaign finance, McCain’s signature issue in his long Congressional career, has become critically important in the presidential race.

Of course, when he was pushing the McCain-Feingold bill through Congress and into law, he probably didn’t expect it to play out like this. Rather than serve as a campaign finance reform’s shining star, McCain, along with Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.), has thrown in the towel. It is clear that after a long stretch on the sick bed, the presidential campaign finance system is now effectively dead.

The death of campaign finance was caused by a joint bipartisan agreement, with unanimous silence from the voting public. Both sides have trashed the presidential campaign finance system in such a manner that, unless there is some unseen radical reform, come 2012 the country will see no serious candidate abiding by spending limits in either the primary or general elections.

On the Democratic side, Obama’s fundraising prowess played a major role in his primary triumph. Using the Internet and new social networking tools, as well as the old-fashioned group of big money donors, Obama has been able to rake in the dough at an amazing rate. It was no great surprise that he decided to opt out of public financing, where candidates receive public funds and in return must abide by a spending limit — it would have only hurt his run.

For their part, the Republicans showed that once again raising money might be necessary, but it is by no means sufficient. The early big spenders, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, made virtually no headway in piling up delegates or winning over voters. Instead, McCain, whose campaign was all but broke the summer before, managed to triumph. But it wasn’t just his personal narrative that propelled him forward. McCain accomplished his comeback with a great deal of money, thanks to personal loans backed by his haul from the public campaign finance system and, of course, vast fundraising.

Yet, after his comeback and despite his promotion of campaign finance, McCain attempted to drop out of the system after he effectively won the nomination on Super Tuesday. The timing betrayed the reason — it was not to help secure the nomination. Rather, he wanted to raise an unlimited amount of primary funds to attack the still-undecided Democratic nominee. By accepting public funds for his primary campaign, he was by law constrained in his spending. In the end, the Federal Election Commission never ruled on his unusual request, so McCain was unable to drop out of the system.

These new developments in the primary were merely preludes to the general election’s warping of campaign finance rules. McCain accepted the $84.1 million in public funds for his general election campaign, which barred him from raising any further funds. Obama decided to risk the funds, and any negative press, and opted out of the system, choosing to raise all his funds on his own. So far, it seems to be paying off. He has shattered all fundraising records.

The McCain campaign has not taken the handicap lying down. Instead, the Republican Party committees, both at the national and state levels, have been the recipients of a huge outpouring of soft money donations. The party committees can accept soft money in much larger amounts per individual than the presidential campaigns, especially, as is now being done, with a linked national and state party donation.

While they are not allowed to spend the money in concert with the candidate, this is simply legal fiction. There is little doubt that they are taking effective marching orders from McCain’s (and in the Democrats’ case, Obama’s) camp on how to spend the cash. Like every other candidate in the past, there is little reason not to. The benefit of using the money is great, and the punishment — a decision from the FEC will come down years from now, with at worst a monetary slap on the wrist and a couple of days of bad press — is meaningless.

It is this use of soft money that highlights just how bad shape the presidential campaign finance system is in. While Obama’s opting out of the campaign financing system showed that voters are uninterested in whether candidates use the public system, McCain’s by now well-documented use of soft money proves something else — voters don’t care about the issue of campaign finance at all.

The McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill was specifically designed to staunch the flow of soft money. Now that his campaign relies on these funds, McCain has done a total 180 on the subject, and it has not affected his standing in the polls one bit.

After years of attacking end runs around the campaign finance system, and staking his reputation on a reform law, McCain has apparently accepted that raising and spending funds in whatever form possible is the best way forward to the presidency. This leads to the grim, but obvious, conclusion. If McCain, who spent years focused on campaign finance reform issues, is perfectly happy ditching the campaign finance rules when it would help his campaign, which candidate won’t do the same in the future?

Come 2012, the major candidates will certainly opt out of the presidential financing system, probably for both the primaries and general elections. Both parties will also discover increasingly innovative loopholes around the soft money ban.

As in the past, the ability to raise huge amounts of funds will continue to play a major role in the choosing the parties’ nominees. There is a small solace — at least they won’t be doing it with public funds.

Joshua Spivak, a public relations executive and attorney, is a research fellow at the Hugh L. Carey Center for Government Reform at Wagner College.