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The Political Tinkerers Give Reform a Bad Name

June 19, 1988|FRED BARNES | Fred Barnes is a senior editor of the New Republic.

The well-intentioned folks bent on reforming political campaigns in California should know better. Tinkering with the way campaigns are run and financed, as the two referendums passed June 7 do, hardly ever produces what it is supposed to. It produces unintended consequences, usually bad ones. Sometimes it brings about the exact opposite of what is sought.

This phenomenon is no secret. It has happened over and over again in the last two decades, becoming the rule, not the exception. So no one should be shocked when the role of money in campaigns isn't diminished as a result of the two referendums. Nor should anyone be surprised when candidates are forced to spend more time than ever in raising funds. After all, they'll be faced with limits on contributions and they won't have public financing.

The amazing thing is that reformers of all stripes never learn. Just this year, moderate and conservative Democrats thought they'd come up with a scheme to ensure that one of their own would be the 1988 Democratic presidential nominee. They created "Super Tuesday": 15 primaries in Southern and border states on March 8.

They achieved the direct opposite of their goal. True, moderate Albert Gore of Tennessee, a favorite of the architects of Super Tuesday, won a few primaries. But the candidates who gained the most were both liberals, Jesse Jackson and Michael S. Dukakis. The impact of Super Tuesday was to transform the race into a two-man battle between Jackson and Dukakis.

This was small stuff compard to the unintended consequences of the reforms in the early 1970s. First there was a rush to have more presidential primaries. This was supposed to give rank-and-file voters a bigger say in choosing the nominees. And it did.

But that wasn't all. It also meant that candidates had to stump state by state, and that cost money. Raising millions of dollars became essential. (Not surprisingly, the candidates who raised the most money in 1988, George Bush and Dukakis, triumphed; the same was true in 1984.) And in place of party leaders, whose influence was sharply reduced, the media got a larger, though unintended, role in screening candidates for flaws.

Nor was the decline of party organizations intended. But it happened once the party leaders lost the right to choose delegates (often themselves and other party chiefs) to the national conventions. Delegate selection, after all, is one of the most important things that parties do. People used to join party organizations in hopes of being named delegates. That incentive is now gone.

The second wave of reform in the 1970s was designed to restrict the influence of wealthy contributors like insurance mogul W. Clement Stone, who gave $1 million to Richard M. Nixon in '72. The post-Watergate campaign reform law limited contributions from one individual to $1,000 per campaign--presidential, Senate, House.

That curbed some of the rich, but hardly all. The fellow with influence now is the guy with rich friends. If he can bundle together scores of $1,000 contributions for his candidate, he's got clout. Plenty of people are good at this. All the $1,000 limit did was cause a power shift.

The $1,000 limit has also forced candidates to devote more time to fund raising, less to issues and face-to-face meetings with voters. More contributions than ever are needed, particularly since inflation has taken a toll on the value of a $1,000 donation. Efforts to raise the limit have failed.

Still another unintended consequence is the independent expenditure. This grew out of a loophole in the post-Watergate reform. The National Conservative Political Action Committee has exploited it to the hilt, attacking liberal candidates with millions in negative advertising. So long as the independent campaign isn't linked to the candidate whose opponent it's zinging, it is perfectly legal. And the $1,000 limit doesn't apply.

Now reformers have turned their attention to curbing political action committees, themselves the unanticipated result of the 1970s reforms.

Of course, reformers are stubbornly naive in thinking that a cap on PAC contributions will really stifle the use of special-interest money in campaigns. That money will be spent elsewhere: for independent expenditures or "soft money" donations to state party organizations. Even public financing won't put the kibosh on this spending.

I think there's only one thing that will clean up the mess created by reforms. I'm willing to stick with the primaries, though six or eight states ought to move their primaries from Super Tuesday. Everybody--candidates, voters, reporters--has adjusted to having lots of primaries. But deregulation of campaign finance is desperately needed.

Let people spend as much as they want on campaigns, so long as they disclose it publicly. PACs, independent expenditures and "soft money" will vanish instantly. We'll know where we stand. And we'll be able to judge candidates fairly and accurately according to who gives them their money and how much they get.

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