I was aware that my first political crush, Sen. Eugene McCarthy, was funded in his 1968 presidential campaign by a handful of liberal millionaires who wanted to dethrone Lyndon Johnson and his Vietnam folly. I was not aware, until reading this George Will column, that it was McCarthy’s challenge that led us down the foolish road of campaign finance reform — a reform process with a great PR image but perverse effects.
For 35 years, campaign finance limits have been sold as a way of “leveling the playing field.” In fact, they provide the Establishment candidates of both parties an almost insurmountable advantage. If Hillary Clinton ends up winning the 2008 Democratic nomination, it will be because of, not in spite of, campaign limits that artificially suppressed the potential for an insurgent, like Barack Obama or a centrist alternative, to challenge her.
Democrats have many interesting candidates, but governors often are the most plausible candidates to be the nation’s chief executive and only one remains in the Democratic race — New Mexico’s Bill Richardson. Three former governors — Virginia’s Mark Warner, Indiana’s Evan Bayh and Iowa’s Tom Vilsack — have left the field.
Vilsack said the demise of his candidacy was determined by ” money and only money.” Well, yes, but there were reasons, political and ideological, why he could not find buyers for what he was selling. Nevertheless, his statement triggered the usual laments about the determinative role of money in politics. This year we are told to be horrified by the fact that by November 2008 the presidential contest will have cost $1 billion. Which means that the two-year process will cost half as much as Americans spend every year on Easter candy.
Candidates do have to spend too much time raising money. But that is because the government, by banning large campaign contributions, has transformed a huge American surplus — money — into an artificial scarcity. The government began to do this for anti-competitive purposes.
The modern drive for campaign finance “reforms” is usually said to have been initiated by Democrats in response to Watergate. Democrats did start it, but before Watergate, in response to their traumas of 1968.
That year, Sen. Gene McCarthy’s anti-Vietnam insurgency disturbed the Democratic Party’s equilibrium by mounting a serious challenge to the renomination of President Lyndon Johnson. McCarthy was able to do that only because a few wealthy people gave him large contributions. Democrats also were alarmed by former Alabama governor George Wallace’s success in 1968, and they mistakenly assumed that Wallace, too, was mostly funded by a few very large contributions.
According to John Samples of the Cato Institute (in his book ” The Fallacy of Campaign Finance Reform”), congressional Democrats began the process that culminated in criminalizing large contributions — the kind that can give long-shot candidates, such as Vilsack, a chance to become competitive. Yes, the initial aim of campaign “reforms” was less the proclaimed purpose of combating corruption or “the appearance” thereof than it was to impede the entry of inconvenient candidates into presidential campaigns. In that sense, campaign reform is a government program that has actually worked, unfortunately.