Jewish World Review August 26, 2004 / 9 Elul, 5764

Joshua Spivak

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Time to pay attention to campaign financing | As Republicans prepare to gather next week for their national convention in New York, most Americans probably realize that there won't be too much in the way of news. The voters have grasped a simple truth: The convention is not the start of anything — and they refuse to treat it with a seriousness it does not deserve.

Unfortunately, the campaign finance laws haven't shown similar wisdom. They treat the conventions as they once were: The beginning of the race. This anachronistic way of viewing conventions as the firing of the starting gun is to President Bush's financial advantage and John Kerry's dismay.

Unless the laws are changed to reflect the current reality, we may be facing a two-convention pileup the next time around.

The way it used to be

The convention once truly represented the start of the electoral campaign. Going into the quadrennial gatherings, the parties frequently had no idea who their candidates would be. History abounds with dark-horse candidates, such as James Polk or Wendell Willkie.

As recently as the Republican convention of 1976, when President Ford dueled with Ronald Reagan, the choice wasn't certain until the convention. Voters were not pushed to pay close attention to the potential candidates, as the electorate for the nomination was the state and local-party leaders.

However, the rise of the primary system has upended this structure. Now the voters make the choice, and the impact on the conventions has been cataclysmic. The conventions have gone from being potentially riveting affairs to boring parties. Gone are the spirited floor debates, the long-winded speeches and the political fire whose flames were fed throughout convention week.

The fact that the famed "convention bounce" is disappearing is no surprise. The parties are still trying to portray the convention as a place for the country to get a full view of a new leader, but all that occurs is a rollout of an existing and battered brand.

Even though the conventions are no longer a real starting block, the campaign finance laws act as though they are and present a substantial hurdle for a presidential challenger.

By practice, the party of the incumbent president has the second convention, whether or not the incumbent is running for re-election. In baseball, "last licks" is always seen as a benefit. Because of quirks in campaign finance law, last licks in presidential politics has had a major effect on the race.

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Both Kerry and Bush accepted public financing of their general-election campaigns, and they must abide by the strictures of the law: Once they accept their party's nomination, each can spend only the money that the Federal Election Commission (FEC) gives him: $74.7 million. They cannot raise additional funds for use in the campaign.

This is a significant restriction, especially in a race with two prodigious fundraisers. The Republicans took advantage of this rule and scheduled their convention much later than normal. Because of the incumbent's last licks, Bush has had five weeks to batter Kerry and therefore start at a competitive advantage for the final sprint to the election in November.

Why the late start?

Some pundits thought the reason behind the Republicans' late start was either a desire to push the ephemeral convention bounce closer to the election or to place it closer to the 9/11 anniversary. But perhaps someone in the Bush camp realized the more important last-licks advantage.

The decision appears to have paid off. While Kerry has had to make tough choices on strategy and fund allocation, Bush has continued to advertise ahead of the convention, and polls show that Kerry's tepid convention bounce has dissipated.

Kerry toyed with the idea of not accepting the nomination at his convention to erase this advantage, but he backed off in the face of withering media criticism.

Kerry, or rather his supporters, have since sought to even the playing field with the controversial "527" loophole, which allows practically unlimited independent spending on issue ads.

Though groups such as have steadily attacked Bush with such ads, 527s (named for the tax-code section under which they are organized) are now causing Kerry the headache. Swift Boat Veterans for Truth have teed off on him over his Vietnam War record, generating charges, countercharges and daily news coverage.

The 527s targeting Bush dwarf the ones criticizing Kerry, but whatever advantage the Democrats thought they had with these groups has been drowned out with the return fire. Last week, the FEC agreed to curb the activities of some political groups by imposing new rules for 527s. But they won't take effect until next year.

Don't think regulating the 527s or whatever new loophole-based group succeeds them will solve anything. They are simply filling a void caused by a campaign-finance system that is anchored to meaningless convention dates.

Clearly, this outsized last-licks advantage cannot continue. Unless change occurs, the out party four years from now won't make the same mistake Kerry did. It will toss away the established practice and schedule its convention as late as possible, even if it overlaps with the opponent's event.

To prevent this mishmash from happening, Congress must set a start date for the use of public funds, regardless of when the conventions take place.

To their credit, the voters and the viewing public have grasped the conventions' insignificance in our electoral scheme. It's time for campaign finance law to recognize this reality, too.

JWR contributor Joshua Spivak is an attorney, media consultant and political writer based in New York. Comment by clicking here.


© 2004, Joshua Spivak