Taking Back Democracy

This is the hour for reform, not recrimination. To view Ralph Nader as representing the "progressive left," in opposition to liberals and moderates inside the Democratic Party, is to commit grave error. The passions aroused by the Nader campaign have much in common with those elicited by John McCain and Bill Bradley in their primaries. Put simply, we are witnessing the birth pangs of a reform movement in America intent on ending the corruption of our democratic system by organized money. Nader and his Greens may fade, but the determination by millions of Americans to rescue American democracy will only intensify.

This may be the largest and most significant political groundswell since the antiwar movement of the late 1960s. It should not be confused with the rise of the corporate-bashing neoprotectionists, whose beliefs are lineally descended from late-nineteenth-century populism. The lineage of the campaign reformers is progressivism rather than populism. They accept the legitimacy of global corporations and the dynamism of the new economy. But they recoil from the extension of corporate power into politics.

Unless the Democratic Party heeds the challenge and embraces the cause of campaign finance reform, the impetus for it will come from without--from McCain's Republicans, disaffected Democrats, and independents who are already organizing for the 2002. Will the Democratic Party respond? The record to date has not been encouraging.

A personal note. Shortly after Bill Clinton's election almost exactly eight years ago, I got a call from Fred Wertheimer, then president of Common Cause. Fred, an old friend, was worried about Bill Clinton's commitment to campaign finance reform. Early on, candidate Clinton had pledged to make it a priority, but he hadn't mentioned it in recent months. Would he push for it as president? I made some discreet inquiries and satisfied myself that he would. "Don't worry, Fred," I jotted in a quick note, "it's all under control."

I was dead wrong, of course. Once he was in office, any thought Bill Clinton might have entertained about reforming campaign finance promptly disappeared. The Democrats who were in control of Congress during the first two years of the Clinton administration didn't want to turn off the money spigots that had got them elected and kept them in office. They told Clinton to forget campaign reform, and he promptly did.

Al Gore also dismissed campaign reform. In the 1996 race, Clinton and Gore took a giant step in the opposite direction, overseeing the creation of negative "issue ads" that beat up on Bob Dole and the Republicans. The commercials were developed and run by the same political consultants who designed the official Clinton-Gore campaign ads. But rather than being paid for by the Clinton-Gore campaign, which had agreed to abide by the spending limits in the law, the ads were funded with unregulated money from the Democratic National Committee. By the time Dole woke up, it was too late. The scheme not only helped Clinton and Gore get re-elected but opened the door wide to soft money in 2000.

This year's final tally isn't in, but according to early combined estimates, Republican and Democratic national fundraising committees have amassed over $400 million in soft money since the start of 1999--nearly twice the amount of unrestricted donations raised in 1996. In addition, the parties collected more than $430 million in so-called hard money, which largely took the form of $1,000 contributions from well-to-do individuals. More than 70 percent of Bush's money came from these mega-donors, who comprise just one-tenth of 1 percent of adult Americans; more than 60 percent of Gore's funds came from this group.

Obviously, the system is deeply corrupting. Money is rarely traded directly for votes, but it buys access and influence, which effectively translate into votes. As a practical matter, large numbers of Americans have become disenfranchised. They have no real capacity to influence public policy. The act of casting a vote in favor of one or the other of two highly bankrolled candidates, both of them deep in hock to the special interests that have financed their respective campaigns, is a pale reflection of democracy--even when the race is as tight as the one just ended.

Those who say that reform is impossible are plain wrong. Clean Money laws already have been enacted in Maine, Arizona, Vermont, and Massachusetts. They provide public financing of campaigns to candidates who collect a threshold level of small contributions and then agree to raise no other private money and to abide by strict spending limits. Nearly 200 candidates are now running for state office under these provisions (the Massachusetts law doesn't take effect until the 2002 races begin).

Bolder approaches would require television and radio stations to air campaign advertising free of charge as a condition for maintaining their broadcast licenses, or would perhaps bar campaign advertising from the airwaves altogether. The duration of political campaigns might be reduced, as in Britain. Above all, strict limits must be placed on the amounts of money that can be spent by candidates and any and all of their supporters. Such measures would necessitate a direct legal challenge to the Supreme Court's dictum in Buckley v. Valeo that money spent on political advertising is protected by the First Amendment.

Democrats must cease their internecine squabbling over the election and wake up to what's happening around them. Genuine reform is in the air. It's a goal every Democrat, and every democrat, must fight to achieve. ¤

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