Campaign Finance and the Threat of “Darkness”

June 6, 2016
posted by Bob Bauer

The New York Times Editorial Board has returned, as it reliably does, to the subject of money in politics.  It is taking stock of campaign finance in this year of the unexpected, and it argues that “big money” has adjusted its strategy, especially in the Republican ranks, where donors spooked by Trump and fearful of loss are supposedly moving money “down ballot.”  This may prove to the case, or it may not, but the editorial underscores the point that the more times change, the more certain arguments remain the same and yet, for that very reason, may raise unintended questions.

The standard reform case has long disputed that it is concerned with the amount of money in politics.  It is argued that none of the regulatory measures advocated have as their purpose a limitation on how much is spent.  But the Times goes back to just this anxiety—“the “vast amount of money sluicing through the political system,” the breaking of all spending records, the “frenzied pace” to raise and spend more of it.

The same reform argument that disputes that it is focused on volume also usually denies that its goal is to channel money into more productive and healthier uses– cleansing the system of dirty politics or negative campaigning or manipulative advertising. Here again, the Times shows that old habits die hard.  It is troubled that so much of the spending underwrites “toxic advertising.”  It notes the descent of non-profit activity into “bare-knuckle” politics.  And it adds the complaint that there is excessive waste in the system, “enriching the new breed of fat-cat campaign operatives.”

What the Times does not account for—and what may pose the largest problem for reform driven by anxieties about volume and its salutary use—are the stakes that parties, political groups, activists, and others may perceive in the contests on which so much is spent.

The Times should be sensitive to this point. Consider its own editorials in the Presidential race. It has opined that the Republican Party has stepped into “darkness” with the presumptive choice of Donald Trump, a candidate who it accuses of running on “outright falsehoods,” of lacking any “grasp of the complexity of the world,” of posing a “danger” voters should recognize, and of “inexperience paired with intellectual laziness that would make him a disastrous president,” whose “rise carries a grim lesson for all.”

All this raises the question: Does the Times take the view that there remains some limit in the larger public interest on the amounts that should be spent, and the “negativity” of the messages funded, to keep Trump out of the White House?

That is not a question to be asked only of Democrats and progressives in the coming campaign against Trump.  It is one that looms over all arguments about the sufficiency of funding and the tone of campaign speech when the relevant actors believe that the country’s politics are about to slip into the “darkness,” toward disaster.

Leave a Reply