Public Campaign Financing

PUBLIC CAMPAIGN FINANCING….Over the past couple of decades, the Republican Party has focused a lot of its attention not merely on getting conservative legislation passed, but on creating a long-term conservative majority by making structural changes to the political system that permanently erode the Democratic Party’s ability to win elections. Examples include an increased interest in gerrymandering, union busting, voter ID laws, and the K Street Project, a party-wide program aimed at persuading lobbying firms to hire only Republicans.

Democrats have mostly played catch-up when it comes to structural changes, but in the current issue of the Monthly Zachary Roth argues that it’s time for this to change. The biggest structural advantage Republicans have over Democrats is their ability to raise huge amounts of corporate cash for election campaigns, and this is where Democrats ought to attack:

It’s no accident that the rise of conservative power in Washington that began in 1980 and accelerated after 1994 coincided with an exponential increase in the cost of political campaigns. Any system that uses corporate dollars to fund candidates’ bids for office will, almost by definition, advantage the party that hews closest to corporate interests. Over the last 12 years, Republicans have figured out how to exploit that dynamic to build a political machine with which they have dominated their opponents. Now that Democrats are back in power, they have a choice: They can try to adapt to that system by going all out to get their share of the spoils. Or they can destroy it altogether by cutting off the money on which it depends.

I’ll confess to some weariness about campaign finance reform — partly because past efforts have achieved so little, and partly because success seems so far away. I was strongly in favor of California’s Proposition 89 last year, a public finance initiative that was modeled on Arizona’s Clean Money law, but it managed to garner only 25% of the vote. A measure to release all Class 1 sex offenders immediately and buy them each their own suburban tract homes probably would have gotten more votes.

But cynicism is for suckers, and Zack is right: lobbying reform is a fine idea, but how much real-world impact will it have if the corporate cash funnel that currently feeds American politics remains in place? Democrats may feel like they’ve made considerable strides in tapping that corporate cash machine in recent years, but they still haven’t caught up to Republicans and probably never will. What’s more, there’s also this:

In recent years, the party has at times failed to stay united on major economic votes like the bankruptcy bill of 2005, in part because some members have caved to their corporate backers. If Democrats hope to fix the Medicare drug plan or repeal some of the Bush tax cuts, they’ll need to reduce these defections. Ending the link between corporate money and elections will make it easier for Democrats to side with their constituents, not their contributors. And creating a record of legislative accomplishment is perhaps the most effective way for Democrats to boost their political prospects.

Read the whole thing. Zack traces out a plausible strategy that sets the stage for public finance reform following the 2008 election, and also outlines the lay of the land right now: who’s for it, who’s against it, and what the obstacles are. It’s worth reading.

POSTSCRIPT: See also Ed Kilgore on the same subject: “The key thing for progressives is not to give up, for even a moment, on public campaign financing as a goal. It may take a while to get there, but leadership requires, well, leadership, and succumbing to the current crazy and corruption-feeding system is not acceptable. This is something on which progressives who disagree on many other topics ought to be able to unite.”