Change For The Better

Campaign Financing Reshaped (washingtonpost.com)
In the 2000 campaign President Bush came out against McCain-Feingold, which he signed as President, by stating that full disclosure of donors is all that’s needed by way of campaign regulations. He’s been true to his word by providing an online database of all of his donors, searchable by state and other criteria. He was right then and he’s continuing to play by those same rules. He’s been quite consistent on this issue and he’s been right all along.

It started as a way to insure that Steve Forbes didn’t fight a ruthless primary campaign and hobble the ultimate winner of the primaries. It happened to Dole in 1996 when he ran out of money in April or so and was broke until the convention. President Bush wasn’t going to let that happen. In the process he’s changed the way campaigns are run.

The Democrats have a problem, because, all of the rhetoric to the contrary notwithstanding, the Republicans excel at raising hard money in relatively small amounts. They are much better at grassroots fundraising than Democrats. The final irony of this whole McCain-Feingold debacle may very well be that everything is struck down as unconstitutional, except the increased limit on individual donations. The soft-money ban could be struck down. The limits on ads by third parties should certainly be struck down. The Supreme Court is holding a special session in September to deal specifically with McCain-Feingold and if I were a Democrat, I’d be praying they strike down the ban on soft money. That money keeps Democrats competitive.

President Bush’s fundraising prowess is reshaping the way presidential campaigns are financed, pressuring Democrats — if not in this election, then the next — to devise ways to follow his example of relying solely on private donations. The trend already is choking a major feature of post-Watergate campaign regulation: the promise of federal matching funds in return for a candidate’s vow to limit spending.

Bush rejected the deal in the 2000 presidential primary, and went on to collect far more money than did his Democratic rival, Al Gore. Bush again is spurning public funding in the 2004 primary, and he is shattering his money-raising pace of four years ago.

Democrats say they cannot compete in such a climate. And it’s not just 2004 they worry about. The nation’s new campaign finance law, which greatly rewards a candidate who can gather piles of $2,000 checks, strongly favors Republicans. That advantage seems unlikely to vanish in 2008 and beyond, several analysts say.

“Bush has transformed the system,” said political scientist Thomas E. Mann of the Brookings Institution. “He has developed a capacity to gain a financial advantage that hasn’t been apparent since the adoption of the 1974” campaign law at the height of the Watergate scandal.

The nine Democrats seeking the 2004 nomination are in a bind, party activists say. Even if they choose to abandon public financing and the spending limits that go with them, they can raise nowhere near the sums that Bush is hauling in, these sources say. Some of them contend that only a Democrat with considerable star power and nearly universal name recognition — New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, perhaps — will be able to compete under the rules Bush is writing.

The recently enacted McCain-Feingold law bans unlimited “soft money” contributions to national parties, depriving Democrats of a key source of cash from unions and Hollywood figures. The law limits donations to presidential candidates to $2,000, and Republicans have far more supporters able and willing to give that amount of money than do Democrats.

The 1974 law was intended to control campaign giving and spending. It allows presidential candidates, during the primary, to receive federal matching funds for the first $250 of each contribution from an individual. In return, the candidates agree to cap their spending. Generally, matching money accounts for 25 to 33 percent of the total a qualifying candidate can spend. This election, the spending cap is expected to be about $46 million before the late-summer nominating conventions, when each party’s nominee qualifies for a new infusion of federal funds.

For several presidential elections, the spending cap was not a major issue. Bush changed that in 2000, when he rejected the matching funds and spending limits, and raised $101 million to spend during the primary. That compared with about $45 million that Gore, who accepted federal funds and spending caps, was able to spend.

As for the post-Watergate spending caps, good riddance to bad rubbish.

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