Campaign Finance:
Memo to Trent Lott

Jude Wanniski
September 30, 1997

 

Memo To: Trent Lott
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: "Bowing for Dollars"

Almost exactly two years ago, on September 29, 1995, The New York Times published an op-ed I wrote about campaign financing, headlined "Bowing for Dollars." It essentially argues for the same position that Sen. Bob Bennett has been taking on the Senate floor and on the weekend talk shows that all restrictions on giving be removed. This is the most forthright position and I think the most principled, and I suspect most of your colleagues in both parties would agree that it would be far easier to clean up the system thusly than to follow the direction toward which McCain-Feingold points. The problem is the same as that of the tax system. There is no way to "mend it, not end it." The current tax law cannot be amended without increasing its complexity, which is why you have to throw your support behind a fundamental tax reform that could be worked out with the President. That is, you have to start from scratch. The same is true of campaign finance. With the best of intentions after Watergate, the Congress intervened with new rules in this realm, and every one of them made matters worse. Bennett is correct in his metaphor, that it is like trying to put a brick in jello, to keep it from moving. Your killer amendment to McCain-Feingold is of course a roundabout way of disposing of the issue in the current session, by making the package distasteful to organized labor. I'd hope you would make it clear to the nation that you agree with Bob Bennett, and that there should be no restrictions on political giving. If Ted Turner wants to give $1 billion to Al Gore for the 2000 race, so be it. As long as the American people are advised of the contribution, we should be satisfied that it will not do Gore much good. To have him running half-hour tv spots on all channels simultaneously for the last month of the campaign, promising an end to global warming, I'm confident he will not benefit from $1 billion. Anyway, here is the Times piece as it ran two years ago:

Bowing for Dollars
by Jude Wanniski
The New York Times
September 29, 1995

With the announcement of a Third Party by Ross Perot, a billionaire, and the presidential candidacy of Steve Forbes, who is almost a billionaire, it is in the interests of both parties to sweep away all limitations on campaign finance. Any American should once again be allowed to give any amount of money to any candidate for any political office.

It should be obvious that the laws we have enacted in the last 25 years to reduce the influence of money in politics have had precisely the opposite result. In this land of opportunity, the federal rules that shape the selection of candidates have become so constricted that we are being forced to choose leaders from an ever-declining talent pool: those who have made or inherited a fortune.

Mr. Perot knows his fortune can't get him to the White House. He has already tried that. So he wants to help General Colin Powell get there. He can legally give General Powell only $1,000. If Congress swept away the legal limits on individual contributions, Mr. Perot could write a $25 million check, and Mr. Powell could run in either party or form his own.

Why is my good friend Steve Forbes leaving the comfort of his publishing empire for the rough-and-tumble of presidential politics? Because his idol, Jack Kemp, decided he did not have the stomach to raise $25 million at $1,000 a pop, an ordeal that would require him to make a thousand promises he knew he could not keep. On CNN's "Capitol Gang" recently, Mr. Kemp acknowledged that he would be running if Mr. Forbes could supply $25 million. On CNN's "Evans&Novak" earlier that same day, Mr. Forbes acknowledged that he would not be running if Mr. Kemp were in the race.

Why do we have such strict limitations on contributions? The conventional reason is that large amounts of private money corrupt government. It may be better to assume honesty and punish corruption.

If Colin Powell accepted $25 million from Mr. Perot and became President, why should we care if he answered every one of Mr. Perot's telephone calls? Wouldn't we expect President Kemp, with his $25 million check from Mr. Forbes, to take a call from him sooner, say, than from Mr. Business Week? But so what? His views are closer to Forbes' than to Business Week's with or without campaign contributions.

The fact is, money can only help a candidate get his message out. If his message is a clunker and he gets $25 million from one man instead of 25,000 people to broadcast it, all that happens is that Americans find out more quickly that they don't like the candidate. If democracy works, the best man has to win, not simply the one with the most money.

In 1980, former Governor John Connally of Texas raised $13 million from oil-and-cattle businessmen and filled the airwaves with his Japan-bashing message of economic nationalism. He got one delegate at the Republican convention. The party instead picked Ronald Reagan, who had spent only $12,000 on the 30-second television spots that helped him win the New Hampshire primary.

In 1968, megabucks from Stewart Mott, a foe of the Vietnam War, helped Eugene McCarthy embarrass President Lyndon B. Johnson in the New Hampshire primary. And W. Clement Stone gave Richard Nixon $5 million. There was nothing corrupt about those gifts. But they helped create the furor that led to the 1971 campaign finance law.

It is time for the Republicans and Democrats to recognize that the limits on contributions have hurt the democratic process and to unshackle the political marketplace.