The Corruption of Campaigns v. The Corruption of Government

February 23, 2015
posted by Bob Bauer

The study by Emory’s Alan Abramovitz, recently discussed by Jonathan Bernstein, heavily discounts the effect of heavy outside spending on the 2014 Congressional elections. His conclusion: that the impact was zero or barely higher, and that the more significant factors were state-level presidential partisanship and incumbency.  But neither Abramovitz nor Bernstein mean to wave away the public policy or regulatory implications of campaign spending.  Candidates still need the money and ask for it, and questions are raised by their dependence on those who supply it.

Still, this study and others are useful reminders of a confusion in the campaign finance debate—the difference between conceptions of a healthy electoral process and worries about the corruption of government. It is not necessary to the importance of donors or spenders that they be clearly able to “buy elections.”  It should be enough that their spending might sway the choice of the campaign issues raised and debated and determine the competitiveness of candidates associated with particular policy positions. This is not a question of the effect of their money on government, but on the electoral process itself. 

This shifting emphasis in the reform debate, now on government and then on campaigns, has produced critiques and proposals aimed more at the quality of campaigns than at the integrity of government.  Reform measures include initiatives to contain “attack ads”, or the requirement of debates as a condition of public financing, or curbs on “outside group” or Super PAC activity to secure more accountability from candidates and parties for the dominant messages of the campaign period.  The “stand by your ad” rule for advertising is a sterling expression of these calls for better, healthier, more productive campaigns. Some states administer codes to policy the accuracy of campaign statements.  The case made for any of these measures need not involve or depend upon the effectiveness of heavy campaign spending in deciding outcomes.

The persistence of the claim for big money’s decisive effects is not difficult to understand.  Reform stands on a firmer foundation if it’s purpose is clear and widely accepted: that policy not be up for bid.  The audience is smaller for the suggestion that political campaigns have to be held by regulation to certain standards of civility and truthful discourse.  The perceived difference between an informatively critical ad and a poisonous attack, or between powerful rhetoric and outright lies , or between shrewd campaign tactics and the evasion of accountability, varies with the observer and the circumstances.  The constitutional ground for regulation is also far harder to establish when the target is the ethical quality and moral tone of campaigning.

These difficulties tends to turn the argument back to corruption and to the asserted power of campaign funders to “buy elections.”

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