The Long, Stormy Marriage Of Money And Politics

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In the congressional hearings that probed the election, commentators repeatedly observed that there was no public outrage over this and that Bill Clinton’s popularity ratings remained high. Others, though, said that the people do care and that they had already proved it in 1996. On October 6, 1996, after The Wall Street Journal broke the first of several stories about questionable White House fundraising (thirty-one donors listed the DNC headquarters as their home address), the Democratic campaign stalled. Instead of continuing to widen his lead over Sen. Robert Dole, the President suddenly had all he could do to maintain a precarious status quo. His hopes of winning a hefty majority of the vote and a mandate to govern vanished. Millions of voters, still unwilling to embrace the Republican candidate, had switched to Ross Perot. Millions more had stayed home, and leading Democratic operators now glumly concede that this voter outrage—such as it was—cost them control of the House of Representatives.

On the other hand, the number of Americans checking off three dollars on their income tax returns to finance public funding of presidential campaigns has dwindled to 12 percent. Some see this as evidence that most people oppose public funding; some as a reflection of disgust at its failure to change anything. Whichever is the case, most Republicans remain opposed to full public funding, with a total ban on private money, partly because they believe this would give the Democrats an unfair advantage. Most of the media, they argue, are Democratic sympathizers, and without paid TV campaigns the GOP would be unable to get its messages to the people. The GOP also opposes reformers’ attempts to limit the use of soft money, for the same reason. As we go to press, the Senate has just killed for this year a reform bill, sponsored by Senators John McCain and Russell D. Feingold, a version of which passed the House in midsummer. If it ever does pass the Senate, most of its provisions, especially those barring soft money, seem certain to be found unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.

Reformers and editorialists who fulminate over congressional hesitation and half-measures ignore a fundamental fact. Until money and free speech can truly be disentangled—which may be simply impossible—the campaign-finance debate is likely to remain academic. It looks as if Americans will go on struggling to reconcile two of our fundamental ideals, freedom and equality, in our elections process—just as we will go on grappling with these often conflicting visions in other areas of our national life. Almost nobody wants to deny the bedrock right to get one’s message across, whatever the cost, yet almost everyone dreams of competing messages’ getting through on their merits alone. Like much else in our experimental Republic, this tension between realism and idealism will continue both to vex and to reassure.