Tom Edsall’s is the latest of a series of pieces purporting to explain the paralyzing conflicts over campaign finance regulation, and his culprit is the Republican Party.  Republicans, he argues, have shifted positions as they have become more dependent on large donations to meet the rising costs of campaigns. And there are more of those massive sums to be had now that the Court has opened the doors to rapidly escalating independent and nonprofit group activity.  Edsall suggests that while the Republican Party was once a leader in the attraction of small donors and partial to mandated disclosure, the GOP has now been driven by self-interest to a position of unyielding opposition to the regulation across-the-board.

Edsall illustrates his case with citations from Republican Party platforms, which he uses to trace the GOP’s journey to the zealous advocacy of de-regulation.  He concludes that “Republican Party elite has adopted a new set of principles in order to justify and support the changing financial needs of the Republican Party.”

The GOP will have to defend itself against the charge that it is wedded to well-heeled interests and is no friend to the “little guy.”  This is not a blog where one would find that defense.  But beyond the politics is the broader case that Edsall would make about the parlous state of campaign finance regulation.  And here Edsall, normally an astute analyst of politics, does not get quite right this piece of the history.

The modern Republican Party has never favored campaign finance, and there is really little evidence to support the proposition that it was warmer to regulation in the ’90s than today. Immediately after the enactment of the FECA amendments of 1974, the Republicans made no secret of their suspicion of government controls on campaign finance.  Edsall cites various party platforms, but not the 1980 platform, which within four years of Watergate, said this about campaign finance reform:

Republicans … support the repeal of those restrictive campaign spending limitations that tend to create obstacles to local grass roots participation in federal elections. We also oppose the proposed financing of Congressional campaigns with taxpayers’ dollars as an effort by the Democratic Party to protect its incumbent Members of Congress with a tax subsidy….

We support the critical roles of competitive political parties in the recruitment of candidates, the conduct of campaigns, and the development of broad-based public policy responsive to the people. We urge Congress and state legislatures to frame their regulations of campaign finance, their nominating systems, and other election laws to strengthen rather than weaken parties.

The institutional Republican Party position has remained much the same since: opposition to regulation, strong support for measures to strengthen the parties.  What about other platforms in later years, seemingly favorable to soft money regulation and disclosure?  The Republicans tended to argue for disclosure when disclaiming opposition to any reform: it was the least restrictive alternative when aggressive reform initiatives were knocking on the door.  When the current period of de-regulation arrived, there was no need for it, and the GOP’s passion for transparency cooled. And soft money was unappealing to the GOP when President Clinton was raising it successfully, and then again when it played so large a role in the opposition to the George W. Bush’s reelection.

Far from demonstrating that the Republicans were once advocates for reform, the true history shows that parties often make tactical choices on reform issues that serve their partisan interests. No one believes that George W. Bush signed McCain-Feingold because he believed in extensive government regulation of soft money.  No one believes it because that is not why he signed it.

The case that the Republican Party does not represent “the little guy” can stand perfectly well on other, different grounds. An opportunistic switch on campaign finance and a sudden dependence on “big money” is not part of that explanation.  If there was ever opportunism, it showed up in the Republican Party’s adoption of pieces of reform rhetoric to meet the partisan political requirement of the moment.

Why would any of this history matter?  It is widely appreciated that the post-Watergate regulatory program is disintegrating, and now a bitter fight has broken out over the reasons. Is the regulatory regime falling apart because it has run its course and no longer can work, requiring fresh thinking about what comes next—or because it is a victim of powerful forces colluding harmfully in its destruction? Those inclined to the latter interpretation point to any number of suspects.  Tom Edsall would include the GOP and its “about-face” on reform.

Certainly the GOP objects to the regulation of campaign finance, but it always has, whether it is raising small money, big money or—most of the time—as much of both as possible.  This is nothing new.  The Party is not now mixing its message because it has no political reason to be anything other than forthright in its opposition, and it sees an exceptional opportunity to achieve its de-regulatory goals.

Category: Political Parties

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