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E.J. Dionne The Watherman

PoliticsE.J. Dionne should go to work as a weatherman for Channel 4. That’s the only job I have ever seen where you are allowed to be more wrong, more often than the WaPo columnist. Today’s diatribe on the “successes” of campaign finance reform is truly astounding for it’s willingness to overlook almost every single piece of evidence that finance reform is, was, and always will be a total failure.

Opponents of campaign finance reform love to claim that the money-in-politics problem is insoluble. But the public financing of presidential campaigns, instituted in response to the Watergate scandals of the early 1970s, was that rare reform that accomplished exactly what it was supposed to achieve.

Sure, E.J. I can totally see your point. For a period of about a decade following the passage of the FEC Act, everyone played nice. But contrary to your claims, the reason it began to fall apart was not due to restrictions on the limits and a lack of indexing for inflation. It began to fall apart for exactly the reasons the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA) has begun to fail – political professionals have found the loopholes.

Look at the influence of 527s in the last election. They spent hundreds of millions in unregulated money to influence the election. Granted, most of that went to Democrats, so to Dionne that may be a success, but it did not remove the special interest money in politics. It just moved that money from national party’s to outside groups. That money will always find a way in.

Why? Why will they always find loopholes? Because it is what our society demands. We demand they raise and spend ever greater amounts because we market candidates like we market products. Campaigns will always be outrageously expensive, but that is due to an uninformed and unengaged electorate that has to be shocked awake every two to four years.

Think of campaigns as a marketing campaign similar to that of a movie or soft drink. You have a period of several months to take a guy that most people have probably never heard of, and make him a household name on par with Brad Pitt. In our media saturated society, that takes lots and lots of money. In the primary alone, Kerry and Bush spent in excess of $500 million dollars. That requires every man woman and child to kick in $2.

Given that there are probably somewhere in the range of about 2-4 million people who are even willing to donate at all, that makes their average gift (just for the Presidential candidates) closer to $100-$250. Since most of the 2-4 million won’t give at that level, someone has to give a lot more to average it out.

Look at John Kerry’s test balloon regarding abandoning matching funds in the general election. We watched that very closely from the Bush campaign and wondered how serious they were. For Kerry to have competed with the roughly $75 million we received in matching funds, they would probably need to raise in excess of $100-$125 million (assuming costs associated with raising money). Would the Internet have made that doable (or even necessary from an overhead standpoint)? Who knows.

The point is, unlike the primary matching funds, which you can count on going up based on your success at attracting small contributions, general election matching funds are set, and candidates are seriously looking at opting out of that system as well.

If public financing works so well, why is everyone abandoning the system? If small dollar donors are engaged and participating as never before, why do we need progressive matching system to provide up to four times the amount they give in order to be competitive?

Our society – and the way we choose to engage (or not engage) in politics – is the reason campaign finance fails. It is not a lack of inflation adjusted contribution limits or 4 to 1 contribution ratios. It is a media rich society that consumes politicians the same way we consume Coke, Pepsi, and McDonald’s. To become a household name in this society requires good marketing. That, in turn, requires more cash than the federal government is willing or able to throw at it.

Even if TV were free to all candidates, the money would still find its way in to support the purchase of radio ads, and every banner ad you can imagine. It’s the nature of politics and our society and no amount of feel-good, liberal, good-government nonsense will change that.

Written by Michael Turk