Earth to New York Times—You Call This Reform?

Like all discerning readers, I'm a particular admirer of the editorialists of The New York Times. It takes real skill and application to write a 500-word essay that is harder to get through than the manual that comes with a Korean-made VCR. Moreover, The Times' editorialists strive tirelessly for perfection. I wondered recently if they had achieved that elusive goal, at least in one important arena, by being wrong in absolutely everything they have ever said about campaign finance reform.

This thought came to me while following The Times' drumbeat of support for the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill (named for Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Russell Feingold, D-Wis.). Courageously, I undertook to read a year's worth of Times editorials on campaign finance. (Note to readers: Do not try this at home! Serious injury can result.)

I found, to my disappointment, that The Times was not perfect. It was not completely wrong about everything. More like 90 percent. Still, the paper's editorials are a nearly ideal guide to the mind-set that has produced today's utterly dysfunctional campaign finance law—the same mentality that insists on repairing the system by doing twice as much in the future of what never worked to begin with in the past.

The Times has been relentless in its promotion of the McCain-Feingold reform plan, especially the plan's centerpiece, a ban on so-called "soft money" (unregulated contributions to political parties). For The Times, McCain-Feingold pretty much defines the possible parameters of real reform. Anything that does more is unrealistic. Anything that does less is "fake reform." As in: "This is no time to settle for fake reforms designed to keep the corruption going and fool voters into thinking that changes have been made."

That was The Times' view of a plan, sponsored by Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., that would have capped soft-money contributions at $60,000 a year. Actually, there was a case for the Hagel idea. Soft money certainly does allow fat cats and corporations to evade restrictions and make unlimited donations, but arguably it also strengthens the parties by channeling donations through them instead of to candidates. Cutting off soft money could emasculate the parties; capping the money might curtail the worst excesses without that disadvantage.

Another idea, often called "paycheck protection," was to require unions to clear political expenditures with their members (and, in some versions, also to require corporations to clear political expenditures with their shareholders). There are sensible arguments both for and against those changes, but The Times did not engage them. Instead, it denounced paycheck protection as a Republican ruse to kill real reform by making it unpalatable to Democrats. In other words, if Republicans defeat a soft-money ban, that is Republicans' fault. Whereas, if Democrats defeat a soft-money ban, that is Republicans' fault.

Underlying The Times' peculiar sense of balance is a distinctive worldview that combines early-20th-century Progressivism with early-1970s liberalism. The Progressive tradition holds that private money in politics is inherently corrupting. Seventies liberalism holds that the way to correct imperfect markets is with centralized price controls enforced by bureaucrats and lawyers.

Thus The Times' obsession with soft money. "The hundreds of millions of dollars in contributions from wealthy special interests ... have corrupted the election process," says The Times. Or again: "The 'soft money' loophole has corrupted the whole political system." And so on. The issue is nothing less than the moral rescue of American politics.

Now, quite a few academics have looked at how contributions affect legislators' votes. The answer, almost invariably, is that the effect is small to unmeasurable—much smaller than, for instance, the sway of ideology or the preferences of constituents. Well then, says The Times, why are all those fat cats giving all that money? The Times itself hints at the answer. (Remember, The Times is only 90 percent wrong.) It cites "the increasing feeling among businesspeople that they are victims of a shakedown." Correct: Corporations and interest groups are worried about what might happen to them if they don't ante up. The big problem is not that the special interests are corrupting the politicians; it is more that the politicians are corrupting the special interests.

That is bad. It is the best reason—and possibly the only really compelling reason—to reduce the role of soft money in politics. But how much reduction is enough? How much is possible?

By replacing political hacks with a professional civil service, the Progressives' reforms of government achieved great things. But their methods were a bust when applied to politics, because attempts to get the politics out of politics invariably fail. And money—a lot of money—always has been and always will be a part of politics. Politicians need money and will always find ways to get it; their supporters will always find ways to give it.

The Times, however, refuses to give up. The "huge rivers of campaign donations" are obscene. As in: "Yesterday Sen. John McCain estimated that the truly obscene sum of a billion dollars has been spent in this campaign on television ads." That would be about $5 per eligible voter. If anything is "obscene," one would have thought it might be that Americans spend so little on political advertising.

But $1 billion is infinitely greater than zero, which, The Times hints, is the proper amount of private money in politics. Tellingly, when it endorsed Al Gore for President last year, The Times chided George W. Bush for being "unwilling to endorse the elimination of special-interest money from American politics." As long as members of Congress "are receiving vast open-ended donations from the industries and people affected" by federal policies, said The Times in March, "Congress is unable to deal objectively with any issue."

There, at bottom, is the dream The Times is chasing: "objective" policy-making untainted by interested parties' money. Make no mistake, this is a radical dream, one hostile at its very core to the messy give-and-take of democratic politics. The whole notion of "objective" policy-making is profoundly anti-political. It leads to the endless entanglement of ordinary political activity in layer upon layer of red tape and criminal law, without actually making the system any cleaner, or cheaper, or fairer.

To me, what is most striking about reading a year's worth of Times editorials on campaign finance—apart from the splitting headache—is the paper's bland imperviousness to any suggestion that its approach might not be altogether realistic. It is as though the editorialists were still resolutely pounding the table for President Nixon's wage and price controls. Years ago, The Times came to understand that, in the industrial economy, any reform will soon collapse if it tries to suppress, rather than channel, market forces. Yet, where the political economy is concerned, The Times imagines that a ban on soft money will make the money go away, so we can all get back to "objective" policy-making. Stranger still, The Times imagines that adding yet another layer of rules to today's 30-year-old system amounts to "dismantling a discredited system of campaign finance and moving to something new, unknown and healthy."

Here let me say a word on behalf of reality. The Watergate-era campaign finance laws never worked, from the day they were passed. The astronomical rise in political spending and giving began after those laws were passed in the '70s, not before, and it has continued ever since. Every time someone tries to suppress the flow of money, the money just migrates further underground, and thus further from accountability to voters. If the special interests can't give to politicians, they give to parties; if they can't give to parties, they spend the money themselves. Real "fake reform" is the kind that prolongs the death throes of this unsalvageable system.

Campaign finance law can never work until it accepts the inevitability of private money in politics and settles for channeling that money rather than eliminating it. Encouragingly, the campaign finance bill that passed the Senate this week makes a nod in that direction. A ban on soft money stands the best chance of working if accompanied by an increase in the limits on direct contributions to candidates ("hard money")—thus giving the money somewhere aboveboard and accountable to go. The Senate bill raises hard-money limits nowhere near enough, but it does raise them and index them for inflation, despite The Times' indifference and the hostility of the reactionary partisans of the 1970s system.

So the Senate showed faint signs of coming to grips with reality. One wonders how many more years or decades of failure must pass before The Times, and its fellow "reformers," will do the same.