Long after the dust settles from the 2004 presidential election, the recriminations and accusations of electoral skullduggery and media manipulation will live on. But writing before the results are final, I do know one thing about this year's vote: It's been the dirtiest election I have ever witnessed.
The tone of the campaign has been one of nonstop vilification of both President George W. Bush and Sen. John Kerry by their opponents. What's worse is that this high-volume vilification wasn't confined to the regular party hatchetpersons, but seeped into the national conversation conducted by ordinary voters in a way unknown in the last half-century.
Who's to blame? The candidates, the parties, the people who yell at each other for a living on talk radio and on the TV political talk shows, and yes, the supposedly responsible mainstream press all deserve a healthy share of responsibility.
Beware of do-gooders
But there's another sector that ought to own up to their role in creating this mudslinging fest: the high-minded do-gooders who created the latest batch of campaign finance reform legislation.
How is that possible?
Wasn't the much lauded McCain-Feingold Campaign Finance Reform law passed in 2002 and signed by President Bush supposed to make politics cleaner and election fundraising more transparent?
Sure. McCain-Feingold so named for its sponsors Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wisc.) was supposed to do all that and more, especially since the constitutionality of the law was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court despite persuasive arguments that the ban on so-called soft money was an unconstitutional infringement on free speech. The result was that public action committees, the so-called PACs, could no longer spend directly to support or oppose candidates.
But in seeking to tweak existing election laws that sought to restrain the influence of money, McCain-Feingold fell prey to the same law of unintended consequences that afflicted previous efforts at reform. Rather than making things better, it worsened an already rotten system.
In analyzing how this happened, we need to start by recognizing that the entire concept of driving money out of politics is itself ridiculous. Money, like water in a flood plain, will always find its level in the politics of a free country. One might as well try to ban the air we breath as to proscribe the spending of campaign money.
Plug one hole in the system by banning soft money contributions to the parties and candidates, and another will pop up. The loophole in McCain-Feingold was that groups that did not directly advocate for or against a candidate were exempt from the soft-money limits.
That led to the creation of the the groups known as 527s (after section 527 of the Internal Revenue Code). These organizations are technically charities and not subject to federal election laws. They are entitled to spend the money they raise on voter mobilization efforts and by issue advertising. But in practice they do the work of the parties, mobilizing portions of the population that they think will support specific candidates, and focusing ads on issues that can criticize a candidate's views or record.
This moved money that was once donated to the parties and the candidates themselves, directing it to private groups or individuals. That proved disastrous because the candidates and the parties are usually restrained from all-out mudslinging, or making outrageous and patently false charges by the fact that such misbehavior can be thrown back in their faces. Say what you will about most politicians, but they are restrained from the villainy they might otherwise commit by the fact that the voters hold them accountable.
Not so, the 527s. Spending as much money as they want and often raising it from wealthy individuals whose influence on politics is otherwise marginal, the 527s say or do whatever they want.
Extremist groups like Moveon.org have become the loudest voices on the left, and excoriated the president in terms that no legitimate opponent would employ. While the Democrats could run on a campaign of national strength, left-wing 527s funded by people like megalomaniac billionaire George Soros could mobilize the anti-war crowd with lies.
On the right, 527s like the "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth" launched an attack on the character and the military service of John Kerry in a way that no mainstream politician would have dared to use, no matter how little they thought of him. Others on the right followed suit.
Rather than the two parties or their standard-bearers engaging each other, the national debate became dominated by the 527s. This pushed the parties farther to the extremes than they would otherwise have been. It also allowed the candidates or their surrogates to use friendly 527s to say things and influence voters with tactics they couldn't get away with themselves. And they call this reform?
Money isn't evil
The folly here is in imagining that spending money on politics is itself evil. As much as everyone decries the funds expended on presidential candidates, taken all together, it doesn't equal the ad bill for just one of the major car companies each year. Isn't electing a president a little more important than marketing Toyotas?
And seeking to create laws that will prevent "special interests" the bad guys that McCain and Feingold were out to hamstring isn't as righteous as it sounds. You may think some "special interests" are inherently evil, such as those that advocate for the oil and pharmaceutical industries, or companies that pollute the environment. But the same strictures apply just as easily to "good guy" groups, such as the environmentalists, and yes, pro-Israel activists.
What we need is less legislation and fewer artificial limits on political speech, and more transparency that would enable us to see exactly who is financing what. The reforms that gave us the 527s, such as previous ones that gave us the PACs, wind up doing just the opposite.
In 2005, expect the legislative agenda to be crowded with measures intended to curb the 527s. But those who think the next batch of "reforms" will do anything but make things even worse are simply kidding themselves.