Defenders of faltering campaign finance regulation have been put to the test in answering the widening doubts about the intended or unintended effects of McCain-Feingold. Now they face a new challenge: the need to deny that weakened parties and their leadership could benefit in a polarized politics from enhanced fundraising capacity to counter the influence of outside groups and instill discipline among their members.

This is an argument of great importance to those who make it: it refutes the argument that some good may come out of the McCutcheon decision, depending once again on the claim that parties have emerged from a period of intense regulation as strong or stronger than ever before.  They ask that we not focus on formal party institutions and instead understand the “party” to be a far-flung network that includes partisan-affiliated Super PACs and other independent groups.   As they see things, adding resources directly to institutional party treasuries would only worsen the risk of big donor corruption.

Tom Mann and Tony Corrado pursue this line of argument again in a paper, “Party Polarization and Campaign Finance,” just released by the Brookings Institution.  They mobilize various kinds of data and make various assumptions to make their case.  Along with the numbers come the more equivocal judgments—for example that fundraising spending authority  would “not likely” or “not obviously” strengthen party leadership.  Id at 18. The analysis is skillful but here are a few critical observations one could make about their project.

First, it is remarkable how the state of campaign finance, so regularly pronounced to be dire, is seen in this analysis to be quite healthy for the parties. Super PACs and other outside independent-spending entities? They are problems in some respects, but apparently not in this one: they bolster the formal parties, being “effectively hardwired” to them, such that the “formal party committees … have never been as effective in the financing of election campaigns as they are today.”  Id. at 6, 13.  So outside spending works to the institutional parties’ advantage. It may be generally bad for the system, inimical to the public interest, but not so bad for the parties, if we are to understand them properly within their network.

Second, nothing is thought or said of the complications party leaders face in carrying out their tasks within this “networked” arrangement. In fact, who leads the parties under this intricate networking scheme?  Are there multiple sources of authority—leaders of independent groups as well as the heads of the formal parties—and how is it imagined that this would work well when, as a matter of law, they are prohibited from “coordinating” freely with each other?  Does this fracturing suggest a party system in good health?

Not long ago, when Robert Caro published his volume on the political craft of Lyndon Johnson, a few commentators and reviewers looked wistfully back on the days when political leaders had the will and the means to compel agreement and move policy. Johnson, after all, was a politician whose dealings with colleagues demonstrated that it was important to “have something to promise [other Senators], something to threaten them with.”  Robert Caro, The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Master of the Senate 403 (2002). One such “something” was money.  “It was money given to the candidates that, in 1940, had furnished him with his first toehold on national power.” Id. at 405.  Lyndon Johnson became Master of the Senate because

He was the guy to see if you wanted to get a bill on the Calendar. Lyndon was the guy to see if you were having trouble getting it passed in the House. Lyndon was the guy to see for campaign funds.

Id. at 413 (emphasis added).

It is  not difficult to imagine how Lyndon Johnson would have reacted to the constraints of operating within a “network,” sharing his power with independent entities under mystifying rules.  Pity the lawyer who would have been charged with informing him of these limits:

Sir: you can’t have that conversation, because you will have satisfied the content and conduct prongs of FEC rules and will be engaged in illegal coordination.

No, Sir: you cannot ask Jackson to give more to the Jones campaign, but Jackson can give to Citizens for Law and Complexity, and Citizens can run ads for Jones, and you could always attend one of their events as an honored guest or featured speaker, provided that you make it clear that you are not asking for money.

No, Sir, you cannot ask Jackson to give money to Citizens.  No, not even if you put it that way: remember that a solicitation can be implied as well as expressed, indirect as well as direct, and it is still an illegal solicitation of soft money.

No, Sir, you cannot tell Citizens afterwards how much to spend for Jones or how: it is an independent expenditure, and as an “agent”  for Jones, you are prohibited from directing or advising on  their expenditure.

I know, I know: I am sorry, Sir: but please let go of my [body part]. That really hurts.

If the parties and their leadership are faring well within this network, they are less than clear about their level of satisfaction.  The Republican National Committee is suing to get out, and this is not the first time. It is seeking the same authority as the Super PACs have to take in funds without limit for  independent expenditures.   It judges that it would be better off running its own show, just as we might expect legislative leaders to want more direct control of the funding of their candidates’ campaigns.

This leads to the question implicit in these discussions and too infrequently raised directly: what is the understanding of politics and political practice that informs the position being taken?

The answer to this question matters In campaign finance research and writing.  It influences, for example, the collection and interpretation of data, the uses of the term “corruption,” and the weight given to the information provided by those who may be interviewed.   It explains the significance that has come to be attached to the views provided by former politicians, retired by choice or by voters, who don’t have fond memories of fundraising and tend to favor reform.  And it is a factor in the ongoing project of persuading parties that they are doing just fine if they would only better understand themselves.

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