Channelling George Washington: Campaign Finance

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Mr. Fleming is a former president of the Society of American Historians. This is the third in a series of articles, "Channelling George Washington."

"To see this country happy is so much the wish of my soul, nothing on this side of Elysium can be placed in competition with it."

“President Washington! I haven’t heard from you for a while.”

“I thought I’d lay low and see how things went without any further advice from on high. But what’s happened in the last week or so has changed my mind.”

“Do you mean the election of Senator Scott Brown in Massachusetts?”

“That’s just off year election politics. Part of President Obama’s ongoing learning curve. I’m talking about the Supreme Court decision, declaring corporations and labor unions are entitled to the right to participate in elections under the First Amendment. This punches a huge hole in the sorry 150 year history of campaign finance laws.”

“President Obama found this extremely alarming. He said it struck a blow at our democratic system.”

“President Obama’s reaction dismayed me. Those words are from a man who was elected president because he rejected government funding and ran without any campaign finance restrictions! That enabled him to outspend Senator McCain 3-1 nationally. In crucial states, such as Florida, Obama outspent him 6-1.”

“Why didn’t Senator McCain do the same thing and match him unrestricted dollar for dollar?”

“ McCain was stuck in the campaign finance quagmire because he and Senator Feingold of Wisconsin were the authors of the latest version of this idiocy, which undermines democracy far more than any amount of money that corporations and labor unions can spend.”

“Can you give us an example of what you mean?”

“You’re running for governor against someone like Eliot Spitzer of New York, who’s worth several hundred million. You live on your salary. But you’ve got some moderately rich friends who would like to give you fifty or a hundred thousand dollars each. They can’t do it. The campaign finance law limits individuals to gifts of a little more than $2000. But Mr. Spitzer can spend half or all of his hundred millions if necessary. Why? He’s entitled to by the First Amendment! Does this make any sense?”

“I don’t see how anyone can defend it.”

“But they do. Senator Charles Schumer of New York called the Supreme Court ruling one of the worst decisions he’s seen in a hundred years.”

“I didn’t know Chuck was that old.”

“That’s an example of his brand of thinking. He likes the present system because as an incumbent he has no trouble financing his campaigns. He raises millions in indirect support from businesses in New York. For the past 150 years, every attempt to impose restrictions on campaign spending gets down to the old Latin expression: Cui Bono? Who profits? To put it another way, whose ox is gored? An objective campaign finance law is a fantasy that has never existed and never will. It’s also superfluous in the first place.”

“Didn’t all this start out with an attempt to reserve high office for the rich?”

“It’s nice to chat with an historian. Yes, at the Constitutional Convention, there was a motion to restrict the presidency to men who had a net worth of at least $100,000. That’s the equivalent of about $5 million in your depreciated dollars. Senators, congressmen and federal judges would be required to have half that amount. Then something – or more specifically – someone wonderful intervened. Ben Franklin rose and said he opposed any measure that tended to debase the spirit of the common people. The proposal went down in a negative roar so loud, I didn’t even bother to count the votes.”

“Do you think the current campaign finance law –what’s left of it -- does that?”

“Unquestionably. It puts politicians and contributors in the hands of a squadron of bureaucrats whose decisions have left the law so complicated, only a Chinese philosopher from the age of Confucius could understand it. The thing is gobbledygook.”

“Won’t the rich be left free to buy elections?”

“I have more confidence in the American people than you – or President Obama – has. New Jersey’s recent election of Governor Chris Christie is a good example of why I say this. Christie ran against another hundred millionaire, Governor John Corzine. He – and the Democratic Party -- thought he had the state of New Jersey in his pocket.”

“Former New Jersey Governor Brendan Byrne told me a story about Corzine that gave him and other Democrats a chuckle. Corzine supposedly got up one morning in a bad mood, looked out the window and said: “This isn’t the state I bought!”

“I can’t wait to tell that one to Alex Hamilton. Corzine shoveled hundreds of thousands of dollars to every Democratic political organization in the state. Even his mother got in the game and gave something like four hundred thousand. But Christie won because the people knew what was happening and listened to him. They looked at Corzine’s awful record in his first term as governor and voted him out.”

“You’re saying that it will be up to the media to keep people aware of who’s giving money and why?”

“It will require a lot of reporters to espouse a new role: umpire. They’ll have to leave their own political opinions outside the newsroom when they go to work. They’ve got to call everything as they see it, not as they wish or hope it will be. That won’t be easy for a lot of today’s scribes. But I think it’s an experiment worth making. Average Americans can and will govern themselves intelligently if they’re given the facts about the challenges that confront them. Let’s drop the idea that voters can be bought and manipulated like so many sheep.”

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