No Easy Solutions for Big Money in Politics
Mortimer B. Zuckerman
Citizens United and super PACs have had an ugly effect on this election, but they may be the evil of two lessers
Big money is having a powerfully different effect on this year's national election campaign. We've seen it in the extraordinary oscillations of the Republican primaries, largely brought about by millions of dollars of television attack ads, financed not by the opposing campaigns so much as by groups outside the parties that can say whatever they want without the candidates or the parties being called to account.
These are the super PACs, political action committees on steroids. Their muscle -- and some think their menace -- comes from two federal court rulings in 2010, notably the
It is also very naïve to believe this independence can be real. As Sen.
The high court's majority thesis is basically that the law McCain favors is unconstitutional. The First Amendment allows two, 20, or 1,000 or more individuals to pool their resources and exercise the same rights as individuals. Individuals do not forfeit their First Amendment rights when they come together to speak collectively, this thesis holds, since the First Amendment states that "
It's a defensible position, but the result is an inundation of irresponsible negative advertising, not just on TV but also on the Internet. The ads have made household names of people like
Nobody has tested the boundaries of this new super campaign finance world, which has overwhelmed the laws passed in the 1970s in the wake of the Watergate scandal. Back then, individuals and groups could give campaigns a maximum of
And "independent" has been defined so loosely by the
The fact is, money may be the worst of all political evils, but attempts to restrict money from campaigns have almost always been circumvented. Given the costs of campaigns in this era, particularly the cost of television, there is virtually no way to stop large pools of money from somehow supporting a particular candidate. Big money, put to honest use, may be benign, depending on your point of view. In 1968, for instance, when President
Republicans see super PACs as counterweights to President Obama's fundraising advantage as an incumbent. In 2008, Obama angered McCain, his Republican opponent, by breaking his pledge to run within public spending limits. Obama broke his word because money will find a way: He'd tapped millions more through the Internet. This year and last he has chased money relentlessly, raising about
It is hard to believe that the candidates will have no control over the literally hundreds of millions of dollars that are being, or will be, spent on their behalf -- advocating positions they don't support, or sliming an opponent. But that is what we can expect. Some party insiders regard supers as unhelpful because they turn campaigns into "circular firing squads," in which the one with the most money dies last. The supers may not be telling people to vote for a candidate, but they certainly are telling the public why they should vote against his opponent. As analyst
We may not be able to end the role of money in American politics, but there are two things we should do, at least. No-limit donations aren't ideal, but let's organize the process so that money can be channeled back into the parties, and thus reinforce accountability. Secondly, disclosure. The public is entitled to know who is giving the money, how much, and how it was spent. Donors would at least be working within a campaign and not around it.
Yes, direct donors might have more direct leverage over candidates, but at least it would be transparent. And parties are an essential mechanism of American politics, as indeed of politics in all democracies. At their best -- and this is important -- they are not the "factions" that
The sad fact is that after nearly four decades, we have not purged our politics of big donations nor cured public concerns about the excessive influence of the wealthy. Nor have we enhanced the trust factor of our elected leaders. In fact, it has gone the other way. Cynicism has deepened about our political system. But what we can say is that additional funding has changed races that would otherwise not have been competitive. And what is the alternative? Direct government funding of political campaigns, when incumbent legislators would be writing the campaign finance rules? Or requiring television companies to offer certain free time to the parties, as is done in
Our form of political financing probably goes under the heading of the evil of two lessers, but nobody has yet come up with a better solution.
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