The Republican National Committee (RNC) apparently wants to party like its 1999. It is bringing two new, overlooked lawsuits seeking to turn back the clock on campaign finance reforms in place since 2003.
Having lost the presidential election, the GOP wasted no time in challenging the constitutionality of bans on soft money and coordinated spending that were championed by its presidential nominee and signed into law by President Bush. The RNC filed one lawsuit in DC federal court that attempts to undo soft money restrictions dividing the state and national parties, and a second in federal court in Louisiana to overturn limits on coordinated spending between candidates and the national parties.
The RNC apparently has decided that it cannot compete in a political climate that limits the influence of corporate soft money. The lawsuits suggest that Republicans may seek to blame the election results on fundraising rules that require parties to cultivate many more individual donors.
Both the limits on spending coordination and the wall between the state and national parties were enacted as part of the landmark McCain-Feingold law and upheld in 2003 in McConnell v. FEC, albeit by a Supreme Court led by then-Chief Justice William Rehnquist. The rules assure that the ban on soft money given to the national parties is not easily circumvented, and that limits on contributions by individuals are not rendered meaningless by direct infusions of party funds to candidates. The RNC and its lawyer, James Bopp, are betting that the addition of Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito to the Court will bode well for its back-to-the-future claims.
Regardless of how one might regard the validity of the attacks on well-established campaign finance principles, the optics for the RNC are not great. This election cycle saw record levels of voter turnout and engagement in campaigns, as well as an explosion of small donors who helped lead the Obama campaign to victory. The Obama campaign’s much-vaunted e-mail list reportedly contains more than ten million names, or 16 percent of his national supporters in the popular vote, according to an analysis in The Nation.
While the Campaign Finance Institute‘s analysis found the percentage of small donors in Obama’s fundraising to be unremarkable (because repeated gifts pushed many “repeater” donors over the $200 threshold), the number of new, small donors who played a part in this election cycle remains staggering.
Campaign finance reform opponents are also trying to use Obama’s fundraising success outside the presidential public financing system as a club to discredit the program. But reformers are not at all humiliated as the Wall Street Journal suggested, by the burgeoning small-donor revolution, record turnout and political voluntarism that marked this election cycle.
Indeed, this aspect of Obama’s success is directly traceable to McCain-Feingold. In the primary, the new rules made it possible for an insurgent primary candidate to overcome an establishment candidate and her prodigious soft-money machine. By outlawing soft money, it pushed candidates out to the grassroots for funds. As Brian Wolff, executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) told The American Prospect, “[McCain-Feingold] forced us to do what we should have been doing all along, which was including more people in the political process.”
Moreover, the Obama campaign also fulfilled the vast potential of the Internet as a fundraising tool, giving the candidate more time to speak to voters. Its success suggests a model for future reforms that further encourage and empower small donors, such as public funding programs that limit large donations, while allowing small donations with a four-to-one match of public funds to make them even more important to candidates.
Every few years, opponents of campaign finance reform declare it dead, pointless or worse. By going on the attack, opponents hope to embarrass president-elect Obama out of following through on his commitment, reiterated November 1 to the Boston Globe by a campaign spokesperson, to fix the problematic presidential public financing system, which has not been meaningfully updated for thirty-five years.
That system needs work, but Congress can easily re-tool it to supercharge small donors, close loopholes for so-called “hybrid ads” paid for with party funds and furnish enough money to win in the general election. All this would be complemented by allowing candidates to continue accepting small donations throughout the election.
Obama should not be distracted by the complaints of a few couch-bound curmudgeons, or the attempts to re-litigate issues long settled. The attacks reflect a view badly out of touch with the public, whose deep mistrust of big-ticket donations that slosh money around in our democracy persists in the wake of the most expensive election in history.
A recent USA Today/Gallup poll showed that 70 percent of Americans think there was too much money spent in the 2008 presidential election. Meanwhile, 70 percent support some form of public financing for presidential elections. Significantly, 42 percent of Republicans thought that participation in the presidential public funding system should be mandatory (although public funding systems must be voluntary to be constitutional under prevailing law); 57 percent of all Americans favored spending limits, which are also unconstitutional. The intense public support for spending limits (even for mandatory public financing) shows the deep skepticism that the public harbors about the role of money in politics.
The RNC’s apparent willingness to nurture an addiction to large donations and soft money will not serve it well. The Internet age of politics is here to stay. Politicians and parties who fail to compete in grassroots politics will quickly lose legitimacy, whatever the Roberts Court decides. The RNC has won this way before, with the 2004 election only the most recent example of its organizing prowess. Rather than trying to roll back the rules, the RNC would be better off using the next four years to form policies that attract voters and develop its own grassroots appeal.
For his part, President-elect Obama should address the concerns raised by the large donors who were a significant part of his fundraising haul.
Voters do connect the dots between the money in our politics and the failed policies in Washington. An agenda for the new administration should include a codification of the principles that the Obama campaign used to revitalize the 2008 election–principles that support a small-donor model for presidential public financing, and a similar program for members of Congress.
People-powered politics is the way forward. As we’ve seen, when parties and candidates return to the grassroots, the energy and investment they generate can change democracy.