Friday, March 12, 2004

Softening Up I have to admit that I'm a bit befuddled by the argument (which now has the support of Republicans, Russ Feingold, and the New York Times editorial page [registration required]) that MoveOn and other politically-oriented groups are violating the spirit of McCain-Feingold--or the goals of "campaign finance reform" in general--when they launch ad campaigns critical of the President.

I'm not a lawyer, so let's deal with the legal question first.

MoveOn and similar groups are typically referred to as "527s," in honor of the section of the tax code that regulates them.

And according to a memo on the website of Center for Public Integrity--a campaign finance watchdog and critic of groups like MoveOn: "527s may raise unlimited amounts of money from virtually any source and can spend those funds on just about any election-related activity except contributing directly to federal candidates."

No one has accused these groups of funneling money to candidates, so that would seem to settle the legal question. It settles it for me, anyway, until evidence to the contrary emerges. (It also explains why The Times, for example, accuses such groups of "subverting" McCain-Feingold rather than "violating" it.)

So the question becomes: What is it about such ad campaigns that unlevel the playing field? Or pollute the political system? Or poison the electoral process?

And that's where I get lost.

I get lost because McCain-Feingold, to my mind, was always about getting the political parties--and by extension federal candidates--out of the business of raising unlimited ("soft money") donations.

True, there were a few worthwhile new disclosure-related mechanisms, and a couple (distasteful, in my view) provisions regulating what outside groups can and can't do in the last few weeks of a campaign.

But the point of the legislation was never to squelch off all political dialogue or make it impossible for rich people to influence the debate.

Instead, the central thrust of the law was to change the climate in Washington so that elected officials would no longer be in a position to shake down corporations and wealthy individuals for million dollar donations. And so that those corporation and individuals, in turn, would no longer be--because of their largess--in a position to dictate legislation.

It remains to be seen whether that goal will be accomplished. But it seems safe to say, thus far, that neither John Kerry nor George Bush (nor either of their campaigns) has surrendered anything in the way of ideology--or spent time or energy--courting donors to America Coming Together or the Club For Growth. No photo-ops, no off-the-record chats, no hunting trips.

So I have a tough time seeing, at least at this stage, just what sort of tainting effect these ad campaigns are supposed to be having.

Another Point: Why are Republicans, who opposed McCain-Feingold bitterly right up until the end, now reading hyperstrict provisions into the law?

One thing that's going on here is that while Republican party fundraising totals typically dwarf those of the Democrats, left-leaning groups seem to be winning the 527 money race.

The early conventional wisdom, to the extent that one has emerged, is that this reversal points to a donating asymmetry: Conservative contributors, when they give money, are eager to support particular candidates. Liberals, however, may be more comfortable than their right-wing counterparts donating to abstract causes.

There are a number of reasons why this might be the case. (I have my own theories.) But it will be interesting to watch all this play out.

CONTRAPOSITIVE is edited by Dan Aibel. Dan's a playwright. He lives in New York City.