To defend the post-McCain-Feingold version of campaign finance reform, proponents have taken special pains to say that it did not really hurt the political parties. They bounced back, engineered new ways to raise money, became perhaps even stronger. The soft-money the 2002 law took away from them has been replaced by other sources of funding. Online contributions have helped, and so has special new party fundraising authority enacted by Congress in the “Cromnibus.”
But even more important, according to this line of argument, is understanding what a political party is. It is not correct, on this view, to point to the formal institutional party organizations, but parties should be viewed instead as “networks” of allied entities. That would include, for example, interest groups sympathetic to Democrats or Republicans, Super PACs aligned with either major party (sometimes referred to as “shadow parties”), and even Fox or MSNBC.
Now the Campaign Finance Institute has put out new research and commentary in support of this picture of the parties. Having assembled data to show that Super PACs aligned with party interests spent large sums of money in 2016, the CFI declares that there is no cause to “bemoan” the weakness of parties. Parties have “rebounded”: they “have found a way to fight back” after the reforms and Citizens United.
And how did this happen? On this point, CFI words its position delicately. The parties’ recovery can be attributed in part to the “law’s permeability.” The unrestricted funding and spending of Super PACs “looks much like the soft-money the formal parties accepted before the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (BCRA).” There are advantages and disadvantages to this development. On the plus side, the “shadow party” PACs don’t have to pretend to be “issue advertising” and can spend on direct advocacy of their candidates. But, more negatively, they have to set up as “independent” of candidates or the institutional parties and cannot coordinate their spending with them.
In this way, the argument over the state of parties takes a curious turn. The Super PACs are regularly criticized for undercutting the basic purposes of the reform law. Now the same legal evasions are touted as the source of strong parties. Is this a defense of McCain-Feingold or an answer to Citizens United? Assume that, as some have proposed, these Super PACs are curbed with rigorous anti-coordination protections–that the law is made less “permeable.” What then would become of the case for the resilience of parties?
The interaction of law and the parties’ health has been routinely overstated. The 2002 reforms did not help: they accelerated the decline in the absolute strength of the parties. Those same reforms damaged the parties’ relative position, putting them at a competitive disadvantage with the “outside groups” even before Citizens United. The reforms should not take all the blame for the condition of parties, nor should their part be too lightly dismissed.
At least it is worth noting the point we have reached in this case for “strong parties.” First, the ailing institutional parties have been redefined as “networks” so that more assets, from other sources, can be transferred to their balance sheets. Now, within the network, the Super PACs that must by law remain independent of the institutional parties are cited as evidence of the parties’ strength. What accounts for that strength is the law’s “permeability” that has allowed for the return of the “soft money” the 2002 law was enacted to outlaw.
So it’s working out after all.