TCS Daily


The 2008 Campaign's Funding Fathers

By Ron Robinson - October 13, 2008 12:00 AM

Almost every day we read of the fundraising prowess of Barack Obama. One day he is on hand for a $6 million, $28,000 per plate, dinner in Hollywood, the next day it is $37 million budget for Obama's Florida effort alone, and then we learn of Obama's current $66 million monthly haul.

In contrast, the McCain campaign decided to accept a government check of taxpayers' dollars to finance the final months of his campaign. This is certainly consistent with John McCain's championing so-called "campaign finance reform" in one of his famed "reaching-across-the-aisle" efforts to appease the Left. Yet, the Left is out raising cash at records levels, piling further advantages to causes that already receive significant favoritism from the mainline media, the academic establishment, and is cashing in on hundreds of millions dollars of unregulated union funds. McCain's tact—turning to the government instead of individuals for support -- implies there is something wrong, something manipulative when individuals are asked to give to a cause they hope to advance.

McCain and most politicians dislike having to raise money to finance their campaigns. They are sympathetic to the complaint from some segments of the public that supporters are solicited too often. In fact, the criticism of "money in politics" fuels skepticism as to whether individual gifting is a virtue.

Often in the heat of a campaign, especially when one candidate's virtues outweigh this criticism, there is a temptation to downplay the significance of not soliciting direct donations for the presidential campaign. However, yesteryear's more freewheeling fundraising efforts suggest systemic reform, now widely acclaimed, was initiated by the very type of gifts that are prohibited by today's campaign financing schemes.

The last major long-term transformation of the national political landscape resulted in part from the visionary gift of one individual. Notre Dame's Dean Clarence Manion personally financed the publishing of prospective Presidential candidate Barry Goldwater's manifesto, The Conscience of a Conservative. It was this book that rallied conservatives behind a set of ideas and formed the basis of a national movement. Manion used his own and family labor and a network of nationwide contacts developed through his radio program, "The Manion Forum" to enhance Senator Goldwater's candidacy.

A Hollywood actor read the Manion-published book and rallied behind Goldwater. Ronald Reagan wrote in his great autobiography, An American Life, "The Conscience of a Conservative, contained a lot of the same points I'd been making in my speeches." In fact, Reagan was so inspired by The Conscience of a Conservative that he gave a speech for Barry Goldwater to some businessmen assembled at the Cocoanut Grove in Los Angeles in 1964. Reagan noted that following that speech he was asked to join five or six people from the audience.

Henry Salvatori, Cy Rubel, and Holmes Tuttle were among that group. They urged Reagan to repeat the speech to a television audience. Together these California businessmen raised a $100,000 gift to sponsor Reagan's "A Time for Choosing" speech and suggested a "trailer" be added to the tape to solicit more funds at the conclusion of the broadcast.

Reagan wrote of the reaction, "Thousands of people...called in pledging support to Barry and the party...[The speech] ultimately raised eight million ."

Reagan continued, "Of course, I didn't know it then, but that speech was one of the most important milestones in my life."

Barry Goldwater lost the 1964 election by record margins. However, that election and its conservative candidate elicited gifts by key individuals including Dean Manion, Henry Salvatori, Cy Rubel, and Holmes Tuttle, that played an absolutely crucial, long-term role in both transforming the Conservative Movement and eventually achieving victory in the Cold War.

High dollar gifts were not the only private financial contributions that had a transformative impact on the political landscape. Conservatives relied heavily on direct mail communications from the early 1960s forward, and those letters were much vilified by the mainstream news media and the Left. But even class warfare advocate Thomas Frank acknowledges its impact in his current book The Wrecking Crew, bemoaning, "Direct mail moved the country to the right." When an individual contributes to an effort he is more likely to follow its progress, speak up on behalf of the recipient, and eventually protect his investment by showing up at the polls.

Initially, the 1964 campaign appeared to be a disaster for conservatism, but the activity and thought it stimulated and the feedback obtained from its audience led to the breakthrough of Ronald Reagan's ascendency to the Presidency in 1981.

Much of the commentary regarding this year's campaign coffers carries critical assumptions about direct mail, individual financed initiatives by freelancers interested in advancing policy positions, and internet communications including YouTube and personal blogs.

There is a steady wail from the Left, and some on the Right, that the government must intervene to stifle these efforts. Yet, as we detail in Funding Fathers, history shows that individual contributions -- including publishing a book without a major publisher, privately financing a groundbreaking speech, or begging for money on a TV ad or with a direct mail letter -- have a transformative, and positive, impact on American public life. Rather than being disparaged, regulated, or halted in favor of governmental financing, such acts of generosity ought to be applauded.

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