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February 2, 2007

campaign finance: defining deviancy down

It isn't easy to regulate or control money in politics. There are practical problems: money tends to seep around legal limits. There are big political obstacles: everyone who holds elected office won the last race under the existing system and has an interest in preserving it. And there are constitutional objections. Even if one feels that the First Amendment allows the government to limit direct contributions to candidates, independent communications still constitute protected free speech.

Nevertheless, the government should not be for sale. We should feel at least some discomfort every time private funds flow into accounts that benefit candidates for public office. If politicians are a little embarrassed to rely on wealthy donors, there is at least a check on their behavior--a felt need to set limits or make amends. We can thereby retain a sense that the market and government are separate spheres of justice.

But shame now seems to be antiquated. According to Adam Nagourney in the New York Times (January 9):

Over 400 people, including corporate executives, governors, wealthy Republican donors and party operatives, gathered around telephones and computer screens stretched out over a huge convention center room for a day of public fund-raising on behalf of Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who created a presidential exploratory committee last week. Television camera crews and reporters circled the room as Mr. Romney's aides provided a running tally of how much had been raised.

For Mr. Romney, this high-tech fund-raiser, with new fund-raising software rolled out to mark the occasion, amounted to a public declaration for the White House, as he marched out with his family for his first major event since leaving the Statehouse.

And as Mr. Romney announced at day's end that he had drawn a $6.5 million one-day haul in cash and commitments, it was also a striking example of just how important fund-raising has become as a test for presidential viability, this year more than most, with the race dominated by high-profile candidates, most of whom are unlikely to participate in the public financing system.

''This has never been done before,'' Mr. Romney said, standing in the middle of an elaborate set, a wireless microphone planted on his body. ''This is the most advanced technology ever employed as a fund-raising effort.''

Instead of announcing his presidential campaign in front of Bunker Hill or the USS Constitution, the former Massachussets governor deliberately chose a bank of fundraisers as a symbolic backdrop. In this presidential season, privately-funded campaign spending is expected to top $1 billion for the first time. The only hope is that such blatant, unashamed mixing of money and politics will provoke revulsion.

[p.s., I note that Senator Obama, who will certainly raise plenty of cash, has imposed a limit on himself. He won't take money from registered federal lobbyists. That is hardly an adequate solution to the overall problem, but it reflects an old-fashioned sense that private money is problematic in politics.]

February 2, 2007 10:08 AM | category: none


In 2004, neither John Edwards nor John Kerry would accept money from any political action committees. Edwards also would not accept money from "Washington lobbyists"; probably the same as Obama above. Edwards also supports "full public financing of campaigns" though has not given specifics.

Note that Hillary Clinton is already accepting contributions of $4200, meaning she is already collecting money for a hypothetical general election campaign.

February 2, 2007 11:29 AM | Comments (1) | posted by Nick Beaudrot

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