I’m working hard on revising a big feature article, so light posting here at Capitolism on this steamy Friday.
As a general rule we eschew Supreme Court commentary here, but yesterday the court struck down the Millionaire’s amendment to BICRA. The amendment allowed candidates facing self-funded millionaires to accept donations in excess of the normal $2300 cap, with the ultimate limit adjusted in relation to just how much of his or her own money their opponent was spending. The idea was to make sure that BICRA didn’t unintentionally prove a boon to self-funded wealthy candidates. By a 5-4 margin, the Court ruled it was unconstitutional.
Lost in the discussion of the ruling, though, is the name of a candidate whose rise to national prominence was almost entirely due to the millionaire’s amendment. I speak, of course, of Barack Obama:
The amendment was sponsored by Illinois Senator Dick Durbin to address a perceived problem in early drafts of McCain-Feingold: that eliminating soft money would amplify the advantage of millionaire candidates, since major parties could no longer flood their non-millionaire candidates with enough cash to reasonably compete. The amendment was hardly altruistic: In 1998, Durbin had watched banking heir Peter Fitzgerald wrest Illinois’s other Senate seat from Carol Moseley Braun by spending $14 million of his own money. Fitzgerald overcame his own limited personal appeal by sequestering himself in the final days of the campaign and bombarding the airways with negative ads.
In many ways, Fitzgerald was the model for Hull, whose strategy was to spend early and spend often. Six months before the election, he had already spent $6.3 million of his fortune on signs, television advertising, and a series of gimmicky bus trips with seniors to Canada to buy prescription drugs. By late February he had spent over $20 million of his own money, and the strategy seemed to be working. Despite his complete lack of political experience, Hull was claiming 24 percent in the polls, ahead of 15 percent for Obama, and 11 percent for Hynes.
Obama wouldn’t have been able to take advantage of Hull’s collapse if he hadn’t exploited the millionaires’ amendment to raise as much money as he did. Of course, McCain-Feingold didn’t hand Obama the money; he still had to raise it. And it’s a testament to the passionate, Howard Dean-like devotion he inspired that so many donors were willing to fork over such large amounts. (This phenomenon was not limited to the well-heeled. To wit, full disclosure: I turned my twenty-fifth birthday party into a kegger for Obama and raised $1,200 from my largely broke 20-something friends.) But the millionaires’ amendment allowed Obama to convert the intense support felt by a relatively small number of wealthy donors–among them George Soros, Michael Jordan, and a number of college professors and public intellectuals–into television spots and a field operation that reached a wide audience. Meanwhile, as Hull kept digging deeper into his own pockets, the donation cap kept rising, meaning Obama could continue to return to the same loyal supporters for more and more money as the campaign wore on. “[The millionaire amendment] really did a great job in what it set out to do: leveling the playing field,” says Obama Finance Director Claire Serdiuk.
Indeed, of the $5.6 million Obama raised during the campaign, $3 million came from 480 individual donors who contributed more than the usual limit of $2,000. Without the millionaires’ amendment, those 480 donors only could have contributed $960,000–a difference of over $2 million, or more than a third of Obama’s campaign war chest.
There were certainly some problems with the millionaire’s amendment. As I wrote then “it’s not hard to conceive of a scenario in which the effects of the amendment wouldn’t be so benign…Imagine, for instance, a self-funded millionaire liberal who runs a campaign crusading against big pharma, only to be beaten back by a windfall of $12,000 checks from Merck executives.”
That said, it’s a bit depressing to imagine the next Barack Obama losing to some unexceptional rich dude because he’s unable to compete financially.