Contents | July/August 2003
More on politics and society from The Atlantic Monthly.
From the archives:
"A Republic—If We Can Keep It" (November 1999)
The present corrupt system of financing elections, a U.S. senator argues, poses a serious threat to our democracy. The sad lesson of the recent campaign-finance scandals is not only that the laws are vaporous but also that politicians won't change their ways without public pressure. By Joseph Lieberman
"The Business of Politics" (October 1986)
Representative Tony Coelho has raised a lot of money for congressional Democrats—and roused a lot of debate. By Gregg Easterbrook
"Political Assessments in the Coming Campaign" (July 1892)
"In presidential years the pressure for funds is very great. The national and state campaign committees strive urgently to get every dollar possible... It is too much to expect that the Commission will be able to put a complete stop to it now; but at least we intend to try to minimize the evils." By Theodore Roosevelt
The Atlantic Monthly | July/August 2003
erry McAuliffe, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, is nothing if not a confident man. His confidence comes from his success in the many fields he has tackled over the years. During the 1990s he became the Democratic Party's most productive fundraiser while founding businesses of his own, chief among them a real-estate firm. "Don't forget, I did start two dozen companies," he told me when I visited him a few months ago. "I started my first business when I was fourteen years old. I was chairman of a bank when I was twenty-seven. Fundraising is like any other business."
"The Democratic Party Suicide Bill"
Democrats knew that campaign-finance reform would cripple their fundraising ability—but they backed the idea anyway, largely on principle. Republicans knew that it would give their party an even bigger edge than it already had—but they staunchly opposed it, also largely on principle. The fate of McCain-Feingold ultimately rests with the Supreme Court. But principle has already cost the Democrats plenty
by Seth Gitell
But although he doesn't show it, McAuliffe has undoubtedly been feeling less confident about the business of fundraising since November 6, 2002, when the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 took effect. Commonly known as the McCain-Feingold Act, for its sponsors in the Senate (John McCain, a Republican from Arizona, and Russ Feingold, a Democrat from Wisconsin), the law bans what had become a key source of financing for both parties: federal "soft money," or donations to a political party for general "party-building" activities such as get-out-the-vote efforts. Because such contributions were in theory not used to support specific federal candidates, they could be made in unlimited amounts, and their use was only loosely regulated by the Federal Election Commission. Under the provisions of McCain-Feingold all donations to national candidates or parties must come in the form of "hard money," which is subject to annual contribution limits and other strict regulations. (State parties are still allowed to accept soft money in accordance with individual state laws. So are certain interest and issue-advocacy groups that have no official connection to a party.)
McCain-Feingold, which passed after years of argument over soft money, was immediately challenged, and in early May a federal district court struck down some key provisions of the law. The court was neither unanimous nor clear in its thinking and philosophy, and it issued a stay of the ruling later in the month, reinstating the law in its entirety until the Supreme Court decides whether it is constitutional. The decision will almost certainly come by early next year.
The law has already created wide ripples in the world of political fundraising, in some cases keeping political figures away from their usual rounds lest they be accused of soliciting soft money, which federal officeholders are not supposed to do under its provisions. A few days before our conversation McAuliffe was scheduled to speak at an awards dinner given by a prominent Hispanic interest group. Democratic officials have traditionally attended the dinner, an annual Washington event. But that evening, as McAuliffe was preparing to make his way across town, lawyers for the party advised him not to go. Because the interest group may have attempted to raise soft money for Hispanic get-out-the-vote efforts—a perfectly legal activity under McCain-Feingold so long as it is not done in concert with federal or party officials—it was unclear whether McAuliffe's presence was permissible (the FEC and party lawyers are still working out the conditions under which such officials can attend this kind of event). McAuliffe stayed home.
For his party, troubles like McAuliffe's are only the beginning. Contrary to a widespread impression, the Democratic Party has relied much more heavily on soft money in recent years than has the Republican Party; it has depended disproportionately on large contributions from wealthy donors to fill its coffers. The Republicans, for their part, have had a hard-money advantage since 1980, when party officials decided to emphasize direct-mail fundraising aimed at a large number of relatively modest donors. The reform bill could hardly be more devastating to the Democrats if it had been drafted by the right-wing talk-show host Rush Limbaugh and the House majority leader, Tom DeLay, expressly to undermine Democratic election prospects for the foreseeable future. But the wound was largely self-inflicted; what's more, the Democrats knew in advance that it would be painful. Similarly, the advantage gained by the Republicans comes in spite of their own actions, actions that were taken with an understanding that they were contrary to practical party interests. When the bill passed in the House, by 240 to 189, the vast majority of its supporters—198 representatives—were Democrats. Its opponents included 177 Republicans. The numbers in the Senate, where the bill passed by 60 to 40, are even more striking: forty-eight of the Senate's fifty Democrats voted for the measure, while thirty-eight of its forty-nine Republicans voted against.
What impelled so many members of Congress to act against their party's own good? There is, of course, no single answer to the question. But a surprisingly important one has to do with a quality that politicians are often said to lack: principle. The passing of McCain-Feingold, and the ways in which the fight over the bill took shape, provide a rare example of politics working the way civics textbooks would have it—with legislators voting largely on the basis of conviction, not calculation.
The Birth of Soft Money
he background for the McCain-Feingold bill begins with the last major change to the laws governing the financing of political campaigns: the Federal Election Campaign Act Amendments of 1974. The amendments greatly expanded reforms made three years earlier and established the first meaningful caps on individual contributions to candidates—$1,000. (Caps on individual contributions to parties were set subsequently.) An FEC ruling four years later allowed political parties to accept donations exceeding those caps, as long as they spent the extra money on party-building activities, rather than on the campaigns of any particular federal candidates (it reasoned that such activities were, for legal purposes, non-federal, and thus were outside the scope of federal scrutiny). With that ruling the commission effectively created the category that would come to be known as soft money.
It was almost inevitable that the money would eventually be spent on other political activities as well. Over time the parties came to consider an increasingly wide range of spending as falling under the party-building umbrella, and soft money was also funneled into uses that critics claimed could not be connected to party building at all. The notion that soft money did not fund particular candidates or their campaigns became a charade: candidates appeared at soft-money fundraisers and benefited directly from them. By 1996 the DNC was using soft money to air television ads—overseen by Bill Clinton, among others—that attacked Bob Dole for certain positions and praised Clinton for others. Although the ads were never found illegal, they drew criticism from Republicans and even some Democrats for the source of their funding—and, as the former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich wrote, they "opened the door wide" to soft-money abuses in the 2000 campaign.
In 1978, when the FEC issued its crucial ruling, the Democrats' fundraising generally lagged behind the Republicans'. They desperately needed a means of competing more effectively for dollars. Still, it took them a decade to begin to realize the potential of soft money. Robert Farmer, the treasurer of Michael Dukakis's 1988 presidential campaign, can take much of the credit for their finally doing so. Farmer crafted a fundraising strategy that made the Massachusetts governor easily the best financed of the Democratic presidential candidates. Early on he took notice of the Republican National Committee's Eagle program, under which wealthy Republicans were asked for donations of $10,000 each. Farmer, knowing that Massachusetts had a solid number of wealthy Democrats, created a counterpart to the Eagles—the Trustees. But he asked donors to give $100,000 each. And during the course of the campaign about 130 did. (The funds went to voter-registration drives and other activities for which soft money was clearly permitted.) At first the Republicans criticized Farmer's program as excessive. Then they tried to follow suit. By 1992 both parties were soliciting even higher amounts.
Dukakis, of course, won the nomination but lost the election, and today he is perhaps best remembered for an ill-advised photograph of him popping up out of the turret of a tank. But his fundraising tactics paved the way for future Democratic campaigns.
During the next primary season Farmer signed on as Bill Clinton's campaign treasurer, and McAuliffe joined Clinton's fundraising team. Clinton's strange alchemy enabled the Democrats to approach the Republicans' success at raising money from wealthy donors. Part of their gains had to do with the fact that Clinton, a charter member of the pro-business Democratic Leadership Council, endorsed policies that appealed to the party's wealthiest constituents, those corporate leaders with left-leaning social views. A larger part had to do with his charisma, and with sheer chutzpah. By the end of the 1996 campaign that chutzpah had the Democratic Party mired in scandal, with the media reporting on legal but unsavory activities (such as luring major donors with high-priced coffee meetings and overnight stays in the Lincoln bedroom) and on clearly illegal practices (including accepting donations from foreign nationals). By the summer of 1998, during Mark McGwire's challenge to Roger Maris's single-season home-run record, Democratic operatives would wonder out loud whether the party was going to receive more subpoenas that year than McGwire would hit home runs. (Final score: 70 home runs and, to the best of anyone's recollection, 64 subpoenas.)
Immediately after the election the DNC, eager to revamp the party's image, began examining Democratic fundraising practices. It established a compliance department to oversee fundraising activities, prevent illegalities, and process all paperwork for the FEC. That year party officials also conducted an internal study to determine the sources of its money. The results were deeply troubling. Of the $122 million that the Democrats had raised in soft money during the 1996 election cycle (in which the Republicans raised $141 million), nearly $25 million—roughly 20 percent of the whole—had come from just 168 people.
During this brief period of self-examination, roughly the first half of 1997, the Democrats did little to raise money. Along with the extraordinary legal fees the party had incurred, the down period left the Democrats deeply in debt. To recover, they soon devised fundraising events unprecedented in scope; such lavish events, although they had drawn public ire, were within the law and were an almost inextricable part of the party's fundraising apparatus. In November of 1997 the party hosted a weekend getaway at a Florida resort, attended by both the President and the Vice President, for fifty donors willing to contribute $50,000 each plus expenses; the following April it held a weekend of special events (including a performance of the musical Ragtime attended by Bill Clinton and Al Gore), which raised $3.25 million. That year, 1998, also brought the Monica Lewinsky scandal, which actually helped the Democrats raise money; many members hastened to contribute because they saw the investigation as an attempt to destroy the party itself. By this point, however, with the party determined to avoid more inflammatory incidents, the rewards for top-dollar gifts had changed. Even the biggest donors received only what fundraisers referred to as "chum": silver picture frames and other knickknacks, and cufflinks whose quality varied according to the amount donated. These items were prized as long as they were associated in some way with the President. Reportedly the most cherished rewards were onyx cufflinks embossed with the presidential seal and bestowed by Clinton himself.
The Drive for Reform
ven as the Democrats were piling up soft money, the movement to eliminate it was gathering momentum. In 1993 Clinton had pressed for a bill, modeled after one vetoed by President George H.W. Bush the previous year, that would have allowed the national parties to continue to raise soft money, but would have more tightly restricted its use. The bill died in 1994, in a dispute about how much a political-action committee could give to a national candidate. Still, the nexus of money and politics was increasingly troubling politicians. Senators Feingold and McCain vigorously advocated reform. In late 1995 they collaborated on an op-ed article for Roll Call, a newspaper that covers Capitol Hill, in which they called for limits on soft money.
McCain notwithstanding, it was largely and increasingly the Democrats who spoke out in favor of campaign-finance reform; the excesses of the 1996 election had made it virtually a necessity for them to do so, at least in public. During an appearance on The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer several days after the 1996 election, for example, Richard Gephardt voiced his support for a ban on soft money (although, behind the scenes, he was helping to raise both hard and soft money for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee). During several 1997 debates between Steve Grossman, the DNC chairman, and Jim Nicholson, his Republican counterpart, Grossman offered to stop accepting soft money if the Republicans would do the same. Grossman's co-chairman, the Colorado governor Roy Romer, echoed the offer. Democrats could make this image-enhancing proposal comfortably, knowing that the Republicans would never agree to it.
In private, however, the attitude toward reform was often different. Representative Marty Meehan, a Democrat from Massachusetts who was elected in 1992 in part because of his call to change the system, recalls speaking at a House retreat in 1997. He had been asked to brief members on the version of a reform bill he was backing. To Meehan's surprise, four fellow Democrats (he won't say who) then gave obviously coordinated speeches opposing the bill, each citing a different practical reason: the bill would make it harder for the Democrats to get out the vote; it would disproportionately hurt the Congressional Black Caucus (because its members, many of whom represented poor districts, relied more heavily than others on get-out-the-vote funds from the party); it wasn't constitutional; it would hurt the labor unions, curbing their ability to use funds from members' dues to run television ads for candidates they supported. "They were all prepared well in advance," Meehan told me. "I was set up."
The pattern that Meehan's experience points to, whereby Democrats publicly embraced but privately opposed reform, continued after the 2000 elections. But the ground was shifting, and genuine support for reform was growing. McCain's presidential campaign had made him an immensely popular national figure. Eliminating soft money had been a pledge of that campaign, one that had been praised in the editorial pages of many influential papers. And soon a host of corporate scandals—Enron, Global Crossing, Tyco—enhanced the climate for financial reform of any kind.
The final push for campaign-finance reform began on January 22, 2001, when McCain, Feingold, Meehan, and Representative Christopher Shays, a Connecticut Republican, held a press conference proposing the bill that, in slightly altered form, was eventually passed. There was little overt opposition from Democrats, and the bill began to make its way through Congress. A handful of Democrats worked, in most cases quietly, against the measure; but it was soon embraced, not just publicly but also in closed-door sessions, by both Gephardt and Tom Daschle, the Senate minority leader at the time, adding to its momentum. The bill passed in the House in February of 2002; the following month it passed in the Senate and was signed into law, although it did not take effect until eight months later.
Shooting Themselves in the Foot
he disastrous consequences of McCain-Feingold for the Democrats were immediate. In January and February of this year the main fundraising arms of the Republican Party took in roughly four times as much as their Democratic counterparts, raising $39.4 million to the Democrats' $9.6 million. The Republicans had raised more money in previous election cycles, too, when soft money was still legal, but the disparity had been far smaller (during the 1998 election cycle the Republicans raised $114 million to the Democrats' $79 million; during the 2000 cycle, $244 million to the Democrats' $219 million; during the 2002 cycle, $250 million to the Democrats' $220 million).
These statistics herald a bleak future for the Democrats, who will face a powerful incumbent in 2004. In the 2000 election cycle Bush raised $101 million in hard money. Al Gore, the sitting Vice President and the heir to Clinton's powerful fundraising machine, raised less than half that amount in hard money. The gap in contributions will doubtless widen under the new law, which raised the cap from $1,000 to $2,000 for individual contributions to a candidate and from $20,000 to $25,000 for individual contributions to a party. Bush is likely to double the amount he raised last time around. And the fact that legal certainty about McCain-Feingold will not come until the presidential election season is well under way is likely to prove far more damaging to the Democrats than to the Republicans.
Yet leading Democrats were fully aware of the bill's ramifications when they pushed for it. Robert Bauer, a partner in the law firm of Perkins Coie and counsel to the Democratic Senatorial and Congressional Campaign Committees, told party leaders exactly what lay ahead if the bill passed. He also briefed House and Senate Democrats at various party retreats.
Joseph Sandler, who serves as counsel to the DNC, expressed similar concerns. Although he says that he did not warn party leaders of the bill's consequences as publicly as Bauer did, they were certainly aware of his views. Noting that he was speaking to me as a private citizen rather than in his official capacity, he called the law "a fascist monstrosity." He continued, "It is grossly offensive ... and on a fundamental level it's horrible public policy, because it emasculates the parties to the benefit of narrow-focus special-interest groups. And it's a disaster for the Democrats. Other than that, it's great."
Gephardt, who will be seeking the Democratic nomination, is among those most directly affected. Few in the Democratic Party have raised as much soft money as he has; with the help of McAuliffe, he crossed the country numerous times after 1994 in an effort to raise enough money for the Democrats to retake the House.
Since the enactment of McCain-Feingold, Gephardt has spoken plainly about the Democrats' fiscal predicament. On the stump he has said that Republicans will probably raise three or four times as much money as Democrats for next year's election. Nevertheless, he says, there were pragmatic reasons for his backing of the bill. He argues that the party cannot match the Republicans at fundraising anyway, with or without soft money. He believes that Republicans will always capture most of the contributions from big-business interests. "If the issue is money, the Democrats are always going to be behind," he told me. "One of the ways I put this to members is that we were in a brick fight with the owner of the brickyard."
Gephardt maintains that Democratic opponents of campaign-finance reform had engaged in revisionist, or at least selective, history. "They remembered what it was like when we had Clinton," he says. With the Democrats relying so heavily on so few soft-money donors, it would have been impossible for them to remain within striking distance of Republican fundraising efforts over time without Clinton and his personal magnetism. Realizing this undoubtedly made it easier for many Democrats to consider giving up soft money. In addition, backing the law allowed Democrats to reassert themselves as the party of "working families"—rhetoric they needed in order to counterbalance the image of wealthy donors being fêted at lavish resorts.
But Gephardt also gives loftier reasons for his position. He tends to avoid speaking about how his support for campaign-finance reform might affect his own immediate ambitions. When asked specifically why he backed a law almost guaranteed to hurt his chances as a presidential candidate, he offered an idealistic if somewhat ungainly reply. "I do what I think is right and what's best for the country," he told me. "If it inures to my disbenefit, then it inures to my disbenefit. There's nothing I can do about that."
Similar sentiments have been voiced by other backers of the bill. Fred Wertheimer, the founder of Democracy 21 and a former president of Common Cause (both nonprofit reform organizations), firmly believes that the Democrats supported the measure for the right reason—a principled desire to get soft money out of the system. He compares the current position of the Democratic leadership to that of President Lyndon B. Johnson after he signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act (although Wertheimer emphasizes that he does not equate the problem of soft money with the evils of segregation). The night Johnson signed the act, he said to his aide Bill Moyers, "I think we just delivered the South to the Republican Party for a long time to come." Wertheimer told me, "You could conclude that Johnson made a mistake, and I would tell you you're wrong, because he opened the door to ending segregation. You can't just decide what's best for the Democrats on an analytical basis and ignore the country." Feingold reinforces the point: "You can't keep a corrupt system in place to protect the status of your party."
nyone who watches Larry King Live knows how much heat John McCain has taken from fellow Republicans for his role in campaign-finance reform. But it has scarcely affected him; at this point in his career McCain is a political entity unto himself, one who exists more or less apart from the Republican Party structure. For Christopher Shays, though, the situation is different, and from all appearances he is being punished for his sponsorship of the law. As the senior Republican on the House Government Reform Committee, Shays was in line to become chairman after Dan Burton, of Indiana, stepped aside. He was instead named vice-chairman. As if to underscore the reason he was passed over, the House leadership named as chairman Tom Davis, of Virginia, who as the head of the National Republican Congressional Committee had spearheaded fundraising efforts for congressional Republicans.
Shays gamely denies that these appointments represent punishment. "I didn't get killed," he told me. "Getting killed would have been if I didn't get chairman or vice-chairman. I feel fully engaged. My talents are being used." He does acknowledge that he still encounters friction and opposition from his colleagues about McCain-Feingold. In February he attended a retreat for Republican representatives; partway through a question-and-answer session with Republican lawyers on the legal implications of the new law, Shays began to feel that the lawyers were exaggerating the extent to which it would restrict party activities. He got in line to speak. Then his frustration took over. "I yelled out, 'You guys are not being fair about this legislation!'" he recalls. "Because they so dislike the law, it was hard for them to tell people how they could live under it."
Republican legislators had understood that the law would give them a fundraising advantage, but almost none of them saw this as a reason to get behind it. McCain admits that he never tried to explain to party members how they would profit from the law ("You never know how long a law is going to have the effects it does," he told me), but he assumes that they had to have realized. "I'm sure that was made known to them by certain analysts," he says. Indeed, Republican election lawyers, vigorously opposed to McCain-Feingold, privately referred to it as "the Democratic Party suicide bill." So why do Republicans seem to hate it so much? McCain connects the party's opposition to habit. "They were addicted to the soft money," he says. "Someone who is addicted to hard drugs probably knows he'd be better off without them. But he's not going to get off them unless he's forced to." That said, most Republican opponents, like most Democratic supporters, put their opposition in terms of genuine principle, even if it's a very different principle. Conservatives believe that First Amendment protections for the unbridled expression of political opinion extend to political donations and advertising. Republicans therefore see McCain-Feingold as nothing less than a threat to constitutional rights.
A Game of Survivor
he passage of McCain-Feingold gave a boost to issue-advocacy groups such as the Sierra Club, NARAL Pro-Choice America, the Christian Coalition, and Republicans for Clean Air (the first three are known as 501(c)s and the fourth as a 527, for the sections of the federal tax code that give them tax-exempt status). Although the law bans soft-money contributions to traditional political-action committees, the lawmakers did not ban such contributions to groups unconnected to parties, primarily out of concern that doing so might be unconstitutional. (The law does ban "electioneering": the groups cannot engage in broadcast advertising, commonly believed to be the most effective form of political advertising, within thirty days of a primary and sixty days of a general election.) Restrictions on how these groups can use their funds vary and will to some extent depend on the Supreme Court ruling, but the organizations are likely to have considerable freedom under any scenario.
Political operatives are moving to take advantage of such groups' privileges; a number of new groups have already been formed. "A few years ago everybody wanted to start up a dot-com," says Margaret Conway, the political director of the Sierra Club. "Now everybody wants to start up a 527. I compare it to a game of Survivor: everyone's forming new alliances and trying to kick each other off the island."
The ascendancy of these groups, like the ban on soft-money donations to national parties, promises to put Democrats at a disadvantage. The party's sources of soft money were for the most part not business or other interest groups but private individuals. Their donations depended in no small part on close personal connections to politicians (remember those Clinton cufflinks); and under McCain-Feingold politicians cannot be explicitly associated with fundraising for issue-advocacy groups. Howard Wolfson, a former aide to Hillary Rodham Clinton and to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, has started a political-action group that has both a hard-money and a soft-money arm. A charismatic figure with a dry wit, Wolfson became something of a celebrity when he was the spokesman for Clinton's senatorial campaign, appearing (at least by phone) on Late Show With David Letterman. But even he, as a behind-the-scenes figure, will have difficulty soliciting large donations on the basis of his personality. He is the first to acknowledge the problem. "Without a politician making the pitch, it's a different ball game," he says. "There's no draw."
Many reform supporters are concerned that such groups will be used to circumvent McCain-Feingold's restrictions on PACs. (Indeed, 527 issue-advocacy committees are known as "stealth PACs.") One fear springs from the existence of two-pronged groups like Wolfson's, the National Rifle Association, and EMILY's List (a group that helps pro-choice Democratic women candidates). Backers of McCain-Feingold fear that funds raised by the soft-money arms of such groups could easily be funneled into the federal election process, in much the way that soft money first came to be abused. Another worry is that if highly ideological groups such as the Christian Coalition and NARAL Pro-Choice America are allowed to raise soft money, it could make its way into electioneering activities, with consequences that would be felt on a national level. "I'm very worried," McCain says. "It's the first of many attempts they're going to bring to get around the letter of the law." This worry has a basis in personal experience: in the last election cycle, shortly before Super Tuesday, Republicans for Clean Air ran television ads attacking McCain. Common Cause, Democracy 21, the Campaign Legal Center, and the Center for Responsive Politics have filed a complaint with the FEC alleging that some of the issue-advocacy groups are seeking unlimited contributions even though, under the law, they are too closely affiliated with a party to do so.
eanwhile, the older, more traditional entities are trying to find a place in the new environment. Terry McAuliffe, the DNC chairman, occupies a spacious corner office overlooking Sixteenth Street, within sight of the White House. The shelves are adorned with photos of him with Bill Clinton, including a stylized black-and-white picture reminiscent of the famous 1960s White House photos of President John F. Kennedy with his brother Robert. McAuliffe is energetic and convincing as he explains how the party began revamping its fundraising efforts even before McCain-Feingold passed. In just two years, he says, the DNC has gone from having 400,000 direct-mail donors and no voter file to having a direct-mail list of nearly 700,000 and a compilation of the names and key characteristics of virtually all the country's registered voters. When McAuliffe assumed the chairmanship of the party, in February of 2001, the Democrats were $15 million in debt. "Today, as I sit here, we're debt-free for the first time in the history of our party," he told me. "Our direct-mail base has grown by seventy percent in the past year. And we're under construction with spanking new headquarters, so we will never again have to lease space. And all with space-age technology—twenty-first-century stuff. Satellite services, all the stuff you need to go out and get new small donors."
McAuliffe is particularly proud of a computer system that lets operatives access the voter list. "Now we can give our grassroots activists correct names and addresses," he says. "We can call every person who voted in 2000—and all the people who didn't vote in 2000. If I want to talk to single women who make $130,000 a year and have children, it takes me six seconds to pull that list up for any state in America."
It all sounds wonderfully high-tech and is extremely useful to the field operations of state and federal candidates. But is this what a high-profile fundraiser really wants to spend his time on? One Democratic fundraiser, who wishes to remain anonymous, is convinced that the answer is no. "There's no glamour in putting together a sixteen-page Excel sheet where the highest contribution is two hundred and fifty dollars," he says. McAuliffe, who has been publicly critical of McCain-Feingold, became slightly defensive when the question was raised. "You're not going to stereotype me as a big-money fundraiser, are you?" he asked. He pointed out that he has been raising hard money (which by definition comes in modest contributions) since 1980, when he served as the finance director for the Carter-Mondale re-election campaign.
Critics of McCain-Feingold lament the fact that the major parties will no longer be able to help candidates by marshaling the support of PACs and other outside groups on their behalf. In the days of soft money, Democratic critics point out, the DNC played a role in unifying the party and moving it toward the center. Without such a clearinghouse, they argue, those running for office will be overly dependent on single-issue groups; this will move candidates of both parties toward the edges, and will advance narrow agendas over common interests. Proponents contend that reducing the power of soft money in party politics will force both parties to go back to their grass roots, which will be good for all voters. Meehan cites a Saint Patrick's Day breakfast he held in Lowell, Massachusetts, attended by 600 people who each contributed $25, followed by a similar event in Haverhill, another city in his district, attended by 500. "I'm politically stronger because more than a thousand people in the core of my district participated in a fundraising activity," he says. "I think the party in the long term will be helped by returning to grassroots activism, voter turnout, and leafleting."
Although the early May ruling that overturned some portions of McCain-Feingold proved to be short-lived, the parties' reactions to it are telling—and they suggest that both opponents and advocates of reform will maintain their views, paradoxical though they may seem, after the Supreme Court renders its decision. Republicans, despite having enjoyed an immediate fundraising advantage under the law, lost no time in rejoicing when it seemed that it would weaken. "I am gratified by much of the court's decision today," Republican Senator Mitch McConnell, of Kentucky, said on May 2. Democrats, having found McCain-Feingold's bite to be sharp indeed, still lamented the apparent blow to the law. Robert Matsui, the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee—an organization that once raised enormous amounts of soft money—said, "It is our hope that the Supreme Court will uphold the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law as written." Richard Gephardt said, "I am deeply disappointed that the court has struck down essential provisions ... I sincerely hope the U.S. Supreme Court will review the decision expeditiously and overturn it." Any Democrats who might have been happy about the ruling kept quiet. Having had several months to live with a law that runs counter to their own interests, neither Democrats nor Republicans took the ruling as an opportunity to change sides or even to soften their rhetoric. To the extent to which principles drove the argument from the beginning, they have continued to prevail.
Seth Gitell was until recently the chief political writer for the Boston Phoenix.
Copyright © 2003 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; July/August 2003; "The Democratic Party Suicide Bill"; Volume 292, No. 1; 106-113.