I’ve been in a wine cave, but Mayor Pete, wealthy donors and the $900 wines weren’t there. But I get the idea: Somehow the electoral process is corrupted if the voices of some candidates are made louder with the help of money from “the rich.” That’s what Senator Warren implied, reflecting her new philosophy on how to finance campaigns. She may be a bit of hypocrite, as Buttigieg pointed out, but is she wrong?
Those who would publicly finance election campaigns, or worse, reimburse or pay voters to make political contributions, are wrong.
Let’s start with banning or severely capping individual contributions, corporate contributions and PACs, all of which are viewed by many as the means through which “the rich” buy elections, power, and ensure the poverty of the rest of us. Although many of us would welcome fewer campaign ads, especially the nasty ones, this “reform” would effectively impose something of a black-out on campaigns. Gone would be most commercials, especially in major markets, and, most likely, a lot of campaigning and campaign staff. It would take unique individuals to want to run for President in these circumstances, especially if they did not already enjoy high name-recognition.
Mind you, the above is only the start of a litany of problems that would be caused by radically reducing the amount of money available to candidates to run for local, state, or federal office.
What about simply giving each major party an equal amount of money to spend in the general election? First, there is no reference to a two-party system in the Constitution. More importantly, the recent track records of both parties in selecting Presidential candidates is not great. In 2016, the Democratic party effectively ran interference for Hillary Clinton. That was their business, but should federal money have been spent on the product of what many see as a flawed process? And then there are the Republicans. Should federal dollars have been spent to broadcast Trump’s offensive ads or to hold his rallies?
And, what happens if there is a viable third-party candidate, or, as some think likely, the emergence of a new, national third party, out of the ashes of the Republican party and refugees from a Democratic party that may be veering hard right?
But are there alternatives?
The answer isn’t easy. Let’s look at the Democrats. Although all major Democratic Presidential candidates support campaign finance reform, there is no core agreement. Warren wants the federal treasury to give a six-to-one match on every contribution made under $200. Sanders wants to ban corporate contributions from both campaigns and to national party conventions. Most other candidates support federal funding for elections as a means of eliminating the opportunity for voters to increase their voice by contributing.
All public financing proposals raise the question of what party or what types of candidates would benefit. Conventional wisdom suggests that Democrats would benefit under the presumption that many Republicans are “rich.” Also, candidates who run on promising large new federal benefit programs, things like free college or student loan forgiveness, would certainly benefit the most.
Questions also are raised about when to give an individual candidate federal funds—is it only after they have achieved their party’s nomination or some minimum level of documentable support? I haven’t seen good answers to these and many other questions. Research to understand what impact any specific proposal might have could take years to conduct.
And what about “in kind” contributions? What is an endorsement from Kim Kardashian or Snoop Dog worth? Should celebrities be banned from making endorsements that effectively will win candidates’ support? Should entertainers be permitted to perform at campaign rallies for free? I know a lot of people who would attend a Trump or even a Tulsi Gabbard rally if Kelly Clarkson or Drake were performing. Both scenarios are unlikely, but who can doubt that a celebrity endorsement is the de facto equivalent of a big-dollar contribution.
If I’m right, there is a national consensus that US elections are a mess. Even attempts at creating a fair process are flawed, most likely as evidenced by concerns that the Democrats’ criteria for participating in the televised debates has resulted in the elimination of every candidate of color other than Andrew Yang. Should special rules be made up to exempt candidates from fundraising requirements under the presumption that the voters likely to support certain candidates don’t have the money to contribute? Should some candidates be exempted from showing poll support under the presumption that early caucus and poll states racial composition favor white candidates? I see dozens of problems with this type of “election engineering.” The current, admittedly flawed system seems preferable.
Ok, so what do we do? It would be nice if the two parties might voluntarily agree to a set of fair rules (or fairer rules) and then require candidates running under their banner to accept them. Santa might also be planning on bringing me a pony this week.
The answer is that we have a flawed election system. Money does influence voting, but so do a lot of other things. Personally, I welcome Michael Bloomberg spending his own money to make his voice heard. I also am interested in whom former President Obama might eventually endorse, even though that endorsement will have a market-equivalent value in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. More importantly, and perhaps more important than even workable and fair publicly financed elections, is more citizenship education. If citizens understand the influence of money in politics, as well as a lot of other things that candidates use to win votes, votes might be cast more carefully. Maybe some future “mistakes” can be avoided.
America must be careful in changing the rules for elections. A mistake could be catastrophic. If a system was adopted that intentionally or not gave one party a permanent advantage over the others, our democracy could end. If elections are engineered to produce predictable results, why hold them?
The risks outweigh the benefits. Agree?
J.E. Dean of Oxford is a retired attorney and public affairs consultant. He is a former counsel to the House Committee on Education and Labor. For more than 30 years, he advised clients on federal education and social service policy.