TCS Daily


Reforming Reform

By Ryan H. Sager - December 10, 2004 12:00 AM

Anyone wondering whether campaign-finance reform did what it was supposed to in the 2004 election need look no further than the last week's headlines -- at two stories in particular.

The short answer is: It didn't. The longer answer is that the Democrats, in particular, ought to be worried about how spectacularly it failed.

The first story appeared in the Washington Post on Friday. From the Post, we learned that in the 2004 campaign cycle, both parties smashed all previous fund-raising records. Whereas in 2000 the candidates had spent just under $1 billion in the presidential contest, this time around the figure nearly doubled to $1.7 billion. And, for the first time since the 1970s, the Democrats did better than the Republicans in terms of money. Roughly $822 million was spent in support of President Bush in 2004, compared to $925 million spent on behalf of Sen. John
Kerry.

So much for two of the fundamental lies behind campaign-finance reform. One, that McCain-Feingold, or any other piece of legislation, can "get money out of politics." Two, that "money rules." It turns out that sometimes, strangely enough, elections are decided by voters weighing the issues and making up their minds based on the candidates' positions.

The second story appeared Tuesday on the Cox News Service. It was an account of a forum at the National Press Club, in Washington, D.C., where top strategists from both parties discussed what went on behind the scenes in this year's campaigns. Needless to say, the Bush and Kerry camps painted very different pictures.

The Bush campaign, Republican strategists said, maintained a clear, unified message, centered around presenting Bush as a strong leader and Kerry as an unsteady one, too weak to protect Americans from the terrorist threat.

Democratic strategists, meanwhile, admitted that their message was (or, messages were) all over the place. "Democratic groups didn't have that clear or consistent message," said Erik Smith, president of the Media Fund, a pro-Kerry 527 group that raised $60 million. In fact, their message was all over the place. Bill Zimmerman, campaign manager of MoveOn.org's Voter Fund, which spent more than $20 million to defeat Bush, recounted how he tried to convince Democrats to stick to domestic economic themes -- but failed.

Some of the groups focused on the economy, some on Iraq. The message got lost.

And here's where the Democrats should start to worry. While some of the message problems on the Democratic side can be blamed on the poor candidate -- who, ultimately, was the one who couldn't figure out what the election was about -- that's not the whole story.

There was also a structural difference in how the Democratic Party and the Republican Party adjusted to the new legal landscape created by McCain-Feingold. The Democrats placed an astounding amount of faith in 527s, independent groups that could accept tremendous amounts of cash from wealthy donors -- like George Soros, who gave more than $23 million to various groups -- but which were not under the control of the party. The Republicans, on the other hand, focused their efforts on raising hard money for the national party, which the Bush team could control. They put a premium on managing their message from the top down.

That's not to say that there were no pro-Bush/anti-Kerry 527 groups, or that their role was insignificant. Swift Boat Veterans for Truth may have run the most pivotal ads of the campaign. But unlike the anti-Bush 527s, the vets were able to stay on message.

The Democratic groups showed no such discipline.

Looking to move on from a devastating election loss, both of the presidency and in Congress, the Democratic Party will be trying to refocus its message over the next two to four years. Many in the leadership seem, wisely, to want to shift to the center -- reach out on "values" and show that they're serious about the War on Terror.

But there will be satellites of the party trying to pull it out of that orbit, 527s like MoveOn.org, the Media Fund and Americans Coming Together. These groups, especially MoveOn.org, have made it clear they have no plans to fade away any time soon.

Critics of McCain-Feingold always maintained that it would weaken the parties while empowering independent groups, the only groups left that can take the truly big checks. And that's exactly what's happened -- at least to the Democrats.

It's something the party's leadership might want to consider next year when our nation's campaign-finance system is likely to be opened up once again for tinkering. At least if they're keeping up with the headlines.

Ryan Sager is a member of the editorial board of The New York Post. He also edits the blog Miscellaneous Objections and can be reached at editor@rhsager.com.


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