TCS Daily

Thank the 'Reformers'

By James Pinkerton - August 7, 2003 12:00 AM

Arnold Schwarzenegger, Arianna Huffington, Gary Coleman, Larry Flynt and at least 11 others, all running for governor of California -- none of them ever elected to anything, and one of them given at least a decent chance of getting elected. Welcome to the wacky world wrought by "reform" politics. And if you like what's been achieved so far by reformers, you'll love what happens if and when there's more reform -- particularly in the area of campaign finance.


The whole history of campaign finance reform is one long study in unintended consequences. Most of these unforeseen impacts have undermined the two-party system, which has been a pillar of our two-plus centuries of political strength and stability. Yet the two parties, say the do-gooders, are sleazy, even corrupt. OK, fine. But those same parties have also served to coagulate interests, forcing disparate players to hammer out their differences in smoke-filled rooms, all in search of a majority. That system is easy to deride, but it gave us such up-through-the-ranks leaders as Abraham Lincoln, Harry Truman, and Bob Dole. Moreover, American politics has rarely been radical, never veering off into the nuttiness that has so often disfigured fractionated parliamentary systems.


Yet three decades ago, Watergate-era reformers claimed that they would "clean up" politics by banning big corporate contributions. The not-so-secret agenda of those 'gater-reformers was three-fold: a) to eliminate corporate influence on politics, b) to eliminate the Republican Party, and c) to take another step toward their ultimate goal, which was public financing of political campaigns. What they got instead was an unpleasant shock to their system; the Republicans mobilized broad-based free-market and business-oriented constituencies, pioneering a new phenomenon known as the political action committee. Just a few years later, in 1980, such PACs as BIPAC, NCPAC, and Citizens for the Republic financed the GOP to control of the White House and the Senate. As William "Life of Riley" Bendix used to say on TV, "What a revoltin' development!"


But if the Watergate-era reforms helped candidates who could generate election-winning quantities of $1000 contributions, they were an even bigger help to candidates who could generate million-dollar contributions -- from their own wallets. Today, the Senate in particular is a millionaire's club; earlier this year, CNN reported that no fewer than 40 of the 100 Senators are millionaires. Interestingly, the five richest Senators are Democrats, as are 18 of the 40 overall. The House, too, includes many members who bought their seats; perhaps the most egregious instance of seat-buying came in 1992, when Michael Huffington, having just moved to California with his Texas millions, spent $5 million to defeat an incumbent Republican Congressman in the primary. Needless to say, Huffington is thinking of jumping into the Golden State governor's race, where he would be squaring off against his ex-wife.


Ignoring the backfiring history of their own campaign-finance-crimping crusade, the same liberal Common Cause-types went on to push for the McCain-Feingold legislation that would ban "soft money" in politics. A year-and-a-half later, it's apparent that yet again, Republicans have been the big winners. As The Washington Post's Tom Edsall worried last Tuesday, "The nation's new campaign finance law, which greatly rewards a candidate who can gather piles of $2,000 checks, strongly favors Republicans. That advantage seems unlikely to vanish in 2008 and beyond, several analysts say."


Why do the Democrats and their allies on the left keep pushing such legislation? Part of the explanation is that they truly believe that money -- at least corporate money -- is the root of all evil. But in addition to that vaguely neo-Marxist faith, the True Believers cling to their ultimate goal, which is to eliminate all private financing for campaigns. That's a dream worthy of a Naderite: a world in which the government regulates everything, because it pays for everything -- and in which Republicans win nothing.


But would public financing work out that way? If candidates couldn't raise, or give, millions, would they all be zealous litigator technocrat types, like Nader himself? That's certainly the goal of the campaign-finance reformers, to squeeze out those with real-world private-sector experience. But given the vexatiously contrarian past history of such public-sector-purifying jihads, it's reasonable to ask: would there be, yet again, unintended consequences crashing down into the path toward consumerist-socialist utopia?


Short answer: yes. Sorry, Ralph. Yet another cautionary tale comes from the state that's causing all the ruckus these days, California. For almost a century now, the Golden State has been trying to take the politics out of politics. Progressive reformers such as Hiram Johnson -- who took time out from being a governor and senator from California to run as Teddy Roosevelt's Bull Moose vice president in 1912 -- believed that the political parties were the problem, controlled as they were by "bosses." So the Progressives instituted such beat-the-bosses changes as non-partisan elections, primaries, the initiative and referendum process, and the recall process.


The Progressives hoped that all these procedural reforms would help elect sober-minded technocrats -- folks like themselves. But what emerged instead, fueled by television, was a new kind of celebrity politics in which star-powered wannabes could bypass the parties and go straight to the voters, via the tube. It began in 1964, when Hollywood song-and-dance man George Murphy was elected to the U.S. Senate. Two years later, another movie star, Ronald Reagan, was elected to the governorship.


To be sure, Reagan proved to be a good governor and went on to be a great president, but it's hard to make the claim that Hollywood, on the whole, has made a positive contribution to the political life of the country. In the meantime, California continues to elect image-driven candidates to statewide office -- individuals who, for one reason or another, catch a passing fancy. There was Kennedy-clone John Tunney in 1970, Jerry "Moonbeam" Brown in 1974, and S.I. Hayakawa, the tam o'shanter-wearing president of San Francisco State University, in 1976. And let's not forget Clint Eastwood, elected mayor of Carmel in 1986; who doubts he could have gone higher if he had wanted to? A system in which the parties are unimportant and a candidate's ego, wallet, and Q-rating are everything may be the result of progressive thinking, but it's hard to say that it represents progress. Indeed, we are seeing the dead end of California's system right now, in the pathetic failed governorship of Gray Davis.


And now the Californi-cation of politics has spread to other states, and to the nation. Such figures as Lew Lehrman, Jesse Jackson, Pat Buchanan, Ross Perot, Ollie North, and Steve Forbes all had one thing in common: they had never run for anything before they burst on to the national stage. And while those hyped hopefuls all lost, others, such as Henry Bonilla (TV newsman turned Congressman from Texas), Fred Thompson, Jesse Ventura, and Hillary Rodham Clinton all bounded for top jobs and won.


Today, another such media-surfer is on the loose: Al Sharpton. The activist/preacher/demagogue proves that there's no such thing as bad publicity, even when the publicity involves such topics as false accusation, tax violations, and general accounting non-compliance. Indeed, Sharpton, who benefits more than anybody in America from free media coverage, actually had the chutzpah to say the other day that he wasn't getting enough coverage. "I think we've seen some very blatant racial insensitivity in the coverage of this race so far," he said Wednesday in Iowa. One remedy, of course, would be for Sharpton to come to California. He'd get plenty of attention -- probably more than he really wants -- if he were governor, and who can say that can't happen?


Hence, Schwarzenegger, who made his announcement on -- where else? -- "The Tonight Show." To watch the rapturous reception he received from the live audience in Burbank was to be reminded that television not only creates, but also amplifies, the power of celebrity, even when it extends into new fields, such as politics. And it helps to have a few funny lines; Schwarzenegger told Jay Leno, "This is my biggest decision since 1978, when I decided to get a bikini wax." Schwarzenegger added a non-specific denunciation of all Sacramento politicians, accusing them of "fiddling, fumbling, and failing." He's right about that, of course, but if he is to be effective in the state house, he will need ideas and principles, not "hasta la vista"-like zingers.


And that's the point: like Reagan and so many others before him, the value of Schwarzenegger's celebrity far exceeds whatever campaign cash he could raise, or give personally to his campaign. He has, literally, billions of dollars' worth of name ID -- what's known in the biz as "earned media."


All of which should provide yet another note of cautionary instruction to those campaign-finance reformers who insist on plowing ahead with new regulations and restrictions, up to and including public financing. As Michael Lind of the New America Foundation puts it, "Some media are more earned than others." That is, if we ever got to public financing, it would be all the easier for big names to dominate political contests, confident that their lesser-known opponents would have to poke along on whatever Uncle Sam provides. The celebs would have the same nominal campaign budget too, of course, but their wealth of fame could be decisive in buying them their offices.


For the moment, we can all watch -- and maybe enjoy, in a Schadenfreude-y way -- the dubious spectacle of California politics over the next two months. But we should be mindful that there are forces at work in America who wish to replace grimy politics with Swedish public administration, in which bureaucrats and technocrats make the key decisions. Yet if those volks ever got their way, the results would probably not be the victory of Dukakisites, but rather the victory of mediagenic demagogues, who could ride their whirlwinds of publicity and notoriety into electoral victory, and then into the precincts of power for which they had no qualifications. And that's a vista that we wouldn't want to hasta, baby.


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