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The Long, Stormy Marriage Of Money And Politics

June 2024
20min read

… or why in America campaign-finance reform never succeeds

In the summer of 1787 a sweaty group of politicians was debating the clauses of a proposed constitution in humid Philadelphia. Endless problems reared their ugly heads: the distribution of power between large states and small states; slavery; the size of a standing army; the powers of the Presidency. The framers solved—or postponed—most of these dilemmas with their famous genius for compromise. But one quandary was solved differently.

A rich young South Carolinian named Charles Pinckney proposed that the Presidency should be limited to people worth $100,000—well over a million dollars in today’s money—and the federal judiciary and Congress to those worth half that sum. Pinckney did not get this idea out of thin air. In South Carolina a man had to have $10,000 to be elected to the state senate.

Other Southerners were eager to support the proposal. Even James Madison, the father of the Constitution, was ready to admit that the chief danger in a republic was the likelihood that a majority of poor men would pass laws that penalized the rich and undermined the nation’s stability. It was vital to give men of wealth a large, if not controlling, voice in the new nation.

Benjamin Franklin took the floor. He said he was opposed to anything “that tended to debase the spirit of the common people,” and he reminded the delegates that the Bible said rulers should be men “hating covetousness.” Pinckney watched his proposal drown in a cascade of nays.

Thus did Americans deal with the first argument over the place of money in a republic. Liberal idealism—and Franklin was probably the most liberal member of the constitutional convention—met conservative realism and routed it. It was a totally misleading moment.

Today it may well seem that Pinckney has posthumously vanquished Franklin in this long-running debate. Money lies at the heart of election politics. In the presidential and congressional campaigns of 1996, the two major parties spent $990.6 million, more than twice what they spent in 1992. For much of the past year, we have been treated to accounts of how the biggest winner, President Clinton, raised a lot of this cash.

A night in the Lincoln bedroom went for $250,000, while a clubby fifty-guest dinner with the President cost $100,000, and a cocktail party, just $50,000. Unknowns like John Huang and Charlie Trie reportedly funneled hundreds of thousands of dollars from overseas donors. The Democratic National Committee (DNC) squirmed in public while returning at least $3.5 million in tainted dollars.

We have heard less about Republican fundraising practices partly because they do not seem to have been quite so blatant but also, of course, because the GOP controls Congress and is chairing the investigations. In the course of the campaign, the Republican National Committee put heavy pressure on its biggest donors to up their usual $100,000 contributions to a quarter million. In return they were guaranteed invitations to all the GOP’s balls and dinners, plus a chance to take home photographs of themselves smiling beside Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich or Majority Leader Trent Lott. At least two dozen executives from major corporations bought this package.

Gifts to candidates are theoretically limited to $5,000 under the 1974 law that set up the Federal Election Commission. But this toothless watchdog, a creature created by Congress with three members from each party to guarantee gridlock, is only the latest mutation in a process that has engaged the best minds in the Republic for generations. If they haven’t solved the problem, it is nonetheless worth seeing why they haven’t.

In the beginning there were no campaign-finance laws. Franklin notwithstanding, money wasn’t regarded as a menace to American politics. That realistic—and rich- man President George Washington firmly backed Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton’s plan to create financial stability in the new nation by reassuring the wealthy. The federal Bank of the United States gave merchants and manufacturers badly needed capital. The assumption of the Revolution’s debts at face value established the nation’s credit, even though it enormously favored prosperous speculators in government paper. There were a lot of rich men around in 1790; the distribution of wealth was roughly what it is today. The top 10 percent of the population controlled well over half the land and cash.

Thomas Jefferson took up Franklin’s cause and organized a political party to oppose Hamilton’s Federalists. His ally in New York Aaron Burr soon realized that Hamilton and his friends controlled both the state’s only bank and the local branch of the Bank of the United States, and they refused to lend money to anyone who did not back their party. The very canny Burr wangled through the state legislature a banking charter concealed in the Trojan horse of a municipal water company and, thus establishing himself, swung New York’s crucial electoral votes behind the triumphant Jefferson-Burr ticket in the year 1800. The contest created a rivalry between two different political orientations that persists to this day (as does the bank Burr created, now known as the Chase Manhattan).


While pulling off his banking coup, Burr also managed to politicize a lower-middle-class chowder and marching group called the Society of St. Tammany. As Tammany Hall it soon dominated New York City’s government. Along with polling the dead, stuffing ballot boxes, and hiring Irish immigrant toughs to cast ballots half a dozen times per election and beat up would-be opposition voters, it became a major source of campaign cash.

As the relatively genteel electioneering of the Revolutionary War generation encountered the politics of mass democracy under Andrew Jackson, money became more rather than less important. President Jackson waged war against the Bank of the United States, which, to hear him tell it, had half of Congress on its payroll. It unquestionably had Daniel Webster and other conservatives. The bank and its well-heeled backers spent thousands trying to paint Jackson as a dictator in the election of 1832.

Fighting the rich cost money; the slogan of a New York Jacksonian Democrat, William Learned Marcy, “To the victor belong the spoils of the enemy,” suggests one way in which they raised it. Public offices were up for grabs in every election; it seemed logical to expect the officeholders to kick in a percentage of their salaries to protect their jobs.

Jackson and his methods annihilated the opposition in 1832, and by the time James Buchanan ran for President, in 1856, money had become important enough in a campaign to prompt the Republican boss of New York, Thurlow Weed, to define the difference between the winner (Buchanan) and the loser (John C. Frémont) as $50,000. When Abraham Lincoln ran for President four years later, the Republicans were determined not to fall short again. In pivotal states, such as Indiana, local Republicans welcomed money from Weed’s ample New York coffers. Lincoln himself once said, “In a political contest, some use of money is both right and indispensable.” Early in 1860 he paid out of his own pocket to help one friend visit Chicago to push his candidacy.

Lincoln’s uphill 1864 election campaign depended heavily on contributions from thousands of companies that the government had enriched with war-production contracts. The return of peace dried up this flow of cash, but government employees continued to be the major source of campaign funds. In Pennsylvania, where the Republicans developed a formidable political machine under Simon Cameron, every state employee received an annual letter ordering him to contribute 2 percent of his pay; its menacing final sentence read: “After the campaign we shall place a list of those who have not paid in the hands of the head of the department you are in.” Cameron’s political philosophy can be summed up in the aphorism for which he has achieved a certain fame: “An honest politician is one who when he’s bought, stays bought.”

Under Jacksonian mass democracy, spending became more, not less, important. Fighting the rich cost money.

Ironically—a word that might well be applied to almost every paragraph of this tale—the Democrats, the party of the common man, introduced the habit of running very rich men for office. This began when they nominated Samuel Tilden for President in 1876. They had already learned the advantages of enlisting the support of the rich. August Belmont, James Buchanan’s principal backer in 1856, a suave New Yorker who was the American spokesman for the immensely wealthy Rothschild banking clan, had helped pay for the creation of the Democratic National Committee in 1852.

Tilden, a highly successful corporate lawyer, reportedly bankrolled two-thirds of his $150,000 Democratic campaign against Rutherford B. Haves. Scarred by the scandals of the Grant administration, the Republicans looked vulnerable. But The New York Times , the Republican flagship newspaper, led a ferocious counterattack on Tilden’s ethics, and the Presidency came down to the electoral votes of three Southern states. Tilden’s nephew and several leading Democrats schemed to buy these undoubtedly acquirable assets, foolishly urging one another on in telegrams that the Republicans later obtained and published. Meanwhile, the GOP put men on trains to head south with carpetbags full of money. “Rutherfraud,” as hostile newspapers called Hayes, became President by a single electoral vote.

The stench wafting from the 1876 election, combined with the 1881 assassination of President James Garfield, inspired a cadre of Eastern Republicans to take action. Eager to break the grip of the corrupt old guard on the GOP, they portrayed the deranged assassin as an office seeker driven insane by the status quo and used him to belabor the spoils system and the custom of forcing civil servants to finance elections with a percentage of their salaries.

In 1883 they prodded the Pendleton Act through Congress, making some government jobs winnable (and keepable) on merit alone and banning the solicitation of funds from federal officeholders. But Pendleton had no bearing on state and city government employees, and payor-else letters continued to flow from Republican bosses in Pennsylvania, while Tammany Hall and other Democratic machines went on collecting their tithes from civil servants and anyone who did business with the city or state.

Now the law of unintended consequences, the only constant mechanism in the story of campaign-finance reform, eased into gear. National politicians, with their access to government workers stymied by the Pendleton Act, turned to corporations and found there the immense wealth generated in the Industrial Revolution by Vanderbilts, Astors, and the like. Boies Penrose, the Pennsylvania Republican boss who succeeded Cameron, summed up the prevailing philosophy when he remarked, “You can’t run a party on nothing and when you need money the place to get it is from them that have it.” Henry Adams saw the result in starker terms: “The moral law has expired.”

A climax of sorts came in the 1896 presidential campaign. Behind the blandly orthodox Republican image of William McKinley stood Marcus Alonzo Hanna, the first authentic genius of campaign finance. His genius was assisted not a little by the radical pyrotechnics of the Democratic candidate, William Jennings Bryan, who attacked the two pillars of Republican prosperity, the gold standard and the protective tariff.

Hanna raised an estimated $7 million from alarmed businessmen to put McKinley in the White House. He levied assessments on companies of all sizes based on his judgment of their “stake in the general prosperity.” With a shrewdness that anticipated the fundraisers of our own nineties, Hanna refused to promise any specific favor or service; rather, he sold the glittering concept of “access” and a government that smiled on corporations.

McKinley beat Bryan and then repeated the performance in 1900 at only about a third of the cost. He even returned $50,000 of a reputed $250,000 contribution to Standard Oil because it exceeded what he considered the company’s fair share of the national effort. His fundraising tactics soon generated a backlash. The outspent Democrats denounced them as proof that America was going from democracy to plutocracy, and they were joined by muckraking reporters who began writing of corporations buying up entire state legislatures to guarantee their immunity from investigation and control. To Hanna’s dismay, the critics were joined by none other than the Republican politician who became President when McKinley was assassinated in 1901.

The 1907 Tillman Act banned contributions by corporations; now wealthy individuals gave money instead.

Like Benjamin Franklin, Theodore Roosevelt had adeep respect for the spirit of the average American, and he sensed that revelations about unchecked corporate power were in danger of making many people cynical toward their country. When he ran for re-election in 1904, he piously returned a $10,000 check from Standard Oil and said he wished he could raise money from average citizens but found the idea unworkable. So he turned to wealthy individuals to fund his campaign. Although their identities remained unknown at the time, four big givers—J. P. Morgan, John Archbold of Standard Oil, George Gould, and Chauncey Depew (spokesman for the Vanderbilts, which means the New York Central Railroad)—covered a fourth of his 1904 expenses.

A year later Republican progressives joinedthe battle against corporate money in politics. A New York legislative committee under Charles Evans Hughes discovered that the state’s giant insurance companies had paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to state and national politicians, often disguised as legal expenses. Hughes summoned to the witness chair Thomas Platt, boss of the New York Republicans, and asked him if candidates felt a moral obligation to big givers. “That is naturally what would be involved,” Platt replied.

Among the many large contributions made to the Repub lican party, Hughes’s investigators found one check for nearly $50,000 paid by New York Life to Theodore Roosevelt’s 1904 campaign. That revelation made headlines across the country. In his next message to Congress an embarrassed Roosevelt recommended a law banning all corporate contributions. The bill that finally emerged, in 1907, was the result of agitation by the populist senator Benjamin Tillman, of South Carolina. “Pitchfork Ben,” a race-baiting demagogue, wanted nothing less than to cripple the Republican party. Nevertheless, public indignation at corporate influence had grown so feverish that even such a law from such a source had a wide appeal. “It is impossible to make a case against the Tillman bill on any other grounds than that boodle has become an indispensable factor in our elections,” wrote the Washington Post.

Roosevelt had proposed to ban all contributions to political parties and have elections funded by the government. The Tillman Act was much narrower: It proscribed contributions to federal elections by corporations and national banks. The Republican Senate excised the part that barred business money from state and local elections.

Tillman’s success led progressives to browbeat a reluctant Congress into other reforms. In 1910 a Democratic-funded entity known as the National Publicity Bill Organization (NPBO) fathered a law that required federal candidates to disclose the sources of their campaign funds. The next year an amended version barred House candidates from spending more than $5,000 in each election. Senators were limited to $10,000, or a lesser amount established by state laws. None of these reforms was adopted without months of angry debate. Spending limits, in particular, aroused furious objections from many politicians.

It soon became apparent that the Tillman Act did not keep business money out of federal elections. Instead of corporations, wealthy individuals—the end run chosen by Roosevelt—were paying now. The Democrats, who had rallied around Tillman and the NPBO, gratefully took whacking contributions from the likes of Thomas Fortune Ryan and August Belmont, ignoring William Jennings Bryan’s declaration that he would not accept more than $10,000 from any individual for his third White House run in 1908.

When Woodrow Wilson ran for President in 1912, he publicly refused to accept a cent from Belmont or Ryan and declared he would raise his funds from contributions of $100 or less. Theodore Roosevelt was quickly proved right; the idea was unworkable, and the small givers ran dry at a total of $318,910. Soon Wilson was taking six-figure donations. In 1916, up against a revived Republican party, he looked the other way while Ryan and Belmont joined the big givers who raised more than $800,000 to finance his narrow victory over Charles Evans Hughes.


Enter the Supreme Court. In 1918 Truman H. Newberry beat Henry Ford in the Republican primary for the U.S. Senate in Michigan and went on to win the general election. Ford’s backers demanded Newberry be prosecuted for exceeding the state’s meager campaign-funding limitation of $1,875. Newberry was convicted and sentenced to two years in Leavenworth. The senator hired Charles Evans Hughes to represent him on appeal; Hughes argued before the Supreme Court that Newberry had not personally exceeded the spending limit. Rather, his campaign committee had spent $180,000. Hughes also argued that Congress had no jurisdiction over primaries.

The Court accepted the latter argument and overturned Newberry’s conviction. But politicians paid more attention to Hughes’s ingenious distinction between candidate and committee. Here was a man identified with campaign-finance reform saying it was perfectly all right to pile on the boodle as long as the candidate was not directly involved with its collection and disbursement.

Before the politicians could apply this nice new principle, they were chastened by the Teapot Dome scandal. Certain contributors who had given heavily to the Republican party in an off year when there was no requirement to report anything had been rewarded with access to oil deposits owned by the U.S. government. The resulting public outrage prompted Congress to overhaul the existing finance law in the Federal Corrupt Practices Act of 1925, which required committees and candidates to file quarterly reports every year. Still, they left a law through which campaign managers could, in the words of one newsman, “drive a four horse team.”

In the 1930s the leaps-and-bounds growth of the federal bureaucracy under Franklin D. Roosevelt alarmed Republicans and antiRoosevelt Democrats enough to make them allies in passing the 1939 Hatch Act, also called the Clean Politics Act, which forbade political activities, including fundraising, by all government employees. The Pendleton Act in 1883 had covered only bureaucrats classified by Congress as deserving protection—excluding most federal employees, about 70 percent, who thus could continue to give money and time to their favorite politicians.

In spite of fierce Democratic resistance, Hatch’s law was extended the following year to include the many state government employees whose salaries came from federal funds. This was a body blow aimed at Democratic big-city political machines. In an attempt to derail this proposal, angry Democrats tacked on a rider limiting individual contributions to $5,000 and party committee expenditures to $3 million in each presidential election.

Debate on the bill offered a dispiriting glimpse into the hypocrisies of campaign finance as purveyed by both parties. Ignoring their history of running rich men, the Democrats portrayed themselves as the party of the poor, who financed their campaigns from contributions by high-minded public employees. The Republicans expatiated on the danger of cash from publicly financed bureaucrats—as if they had never milked government servants in states like Pennsylvania that they controlled.

In the end Congress amazed itself and everyone else by approving limits on both individual donations and total campaign expenditures. The general counsel to the Republican National Committee reacted promptly: He expanded the Charles Evans Hughes option. There would be nothing wrong, he said, with someone paying $5,000 apiece to several state and local Republican committees; indeed it would also be legal to form several national committees, each of which could spend $3 million. In the 1940 election the Republicans spent $15 million, the Democrats $6 million, breaking all previous records.

In the same Depression decade a new force emerged on the campaign-finance scene: labor unions. Through their dues they could put millions behind chosen candidates. The specter of concentrated worker power alarmed conservatives at least as much as did the potential tyranny of politically active union chiefs, and in 1943 a congressional coalition of Southern Democrats and Republicans prohibited unions from contributing to national political organizations, a ban that was reaffirmed by the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947. The Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) responded by forming the first political-action committee, CIO-PAC, a group nominally independent of the sponsoring union. It was an invention labor would learn to regret.

Nothing much was done about campaign finance between 1943 and 1971. Sporadic congressional moral spasms died in committee or were blocked by unenthusiastic Presidents, notably Lyndon Johnson, who appointed a bipartisan panel to overhaul the law and never even acknowledged its report. The big change in these years was soaring campaign costs, driven by the growing power of television. From $21 million in 1940, when radio time went for as little as $25,000 a half-hour, the tab for the TV-saturated Johnson-Goldwater campaign in 1964 rose to $60 million.

When Congress prohibited unions from giving, they formed the first PAC—an invention labor would learn to regret.

In 1968, when Hubert Humphrey fought it out with Richard Nixon, the cost hit $100 million. Single-handedly proving the impotence of the Hatch Act’s $5,000 limitation on individual gifts, the insurance magnate W. Clement Stone gave $2.2 million to a plethora of Republican committees and Nixon front organizations. The Democrats matched this flouting of the law’s intent by setting up almost fifty committees to bring in their cash.

It looked as if the politicians and their managers would continue to raise money and spend it in ever-swelling volume unto the millennium. But Democrats were deeply disturbed by Nixon’s 1968 triumph, which they attributed to his larger war chest. Echoing Thurlow Weed’s 1856 lament, Humphrey’s campaign manager, Joseph Napolitan, said that another $300,000 could have won his candidate California and the election.

Sen. Russell Long and several other leading Democrats began calling for an overhaul of campaign-finance laws and the introduction of some form of public funding—the goal, of course, was to upend the Republicans’ financial supremacy—and after years of debate and hearings, they produced the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971. FECA did not contain a public-funding clause, because President Nixon violently opposed the idea, but it continued the ban on corporate and union money, and it set limits on how much a wealthy candidate could spend on his own campaign ($50,000 for a presidential race). It also paradoxically abolished the limit on how much an individual could give to someone else’s campaign or how much a committee could contribute. In an attempt to control TV costs, the lawmakers limited how much a candidate could spend on media. FECA also called for far stricter and more detailed disclosures of who was giving and how much.

There was a good deal of hopeful talk about FECA’s reducing the costs of campaigns. Instead President Nixon spent twice as much in 1972 as he had in 1968, and his challenger, George McGovern, quadrupled his party’s previous outlays. The total bill for both parties in all the races exceeded $400 million, a 33 percent jump over 1968.

Before Congress could begin to reassess FECA, the Watergate scandal generated a new opportunity for reform. The hearings not only revealed a President guilty of obstructing justice but unveiled his election team laundering money in Mexico and performing similar arabesques elsewhere to evade the new election law. Soon one out of every four constituent letters that reached Congress was a demand for campaign-finance revision.

At this point a new player entered the fray, the citizens’ advocacy group Common Cause. Using litigation, lobbying, publicity, and other forms of political pressure, these upper-middle-class liberals became a kind of Greek chorus crying for reform. In 1974 Congress responded by producing the first really comprehensive campaign-finance legislation. Described as an amendment to 1972’s FECA, it was in fact an almost total overhaul, aimed at creating an era of equality and ethical purity in American politics.

First, and seemingly most important, the lawmakers at last voted for what Theodore Roosevelt had wanted: public money for presidential-election campaigns. It would be paid by people checking off a one-dollar contribution on their tax returns (raised to three dollars in 1993), which would not increase their total bill. Meanwhile, Congress tried to rein in private political spending down the line: Senators were limited to $100,000 per primary and $150,000 per general election; representatives to $70,000. Presidential contests were confined to $10 million for a nomination and $20 million in the general election. National-party committee spending was given a ceiling of $10,000 in House elections, $20,000 in Senate ones, and $2.9 million in a presidential race. The law retained the 1971 limits on personal spending by wealthy candidates and their immediate families and tried otherwise to diminish the influence of large donors by forbidding them to give more than $25,000 per federal election. PACs were allowed $5,000 per candidate. Disclosure rules were again toughened, and to monitor this complicated process, Congress created the bipartisan Federal Election Commission.

President Ford had no sooner signed the new law than an unlikely trio—the very conservative senator James Buckley of New York, the very liberal former senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota, and Ira Classer, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union—called a press conference in Washington to assail it from every point of the ideological and political compass. They said the monetary limitations violated their First Amendment rights and the disclosure requirements had the makings of a police state. McCarthy compared public funding of the major parties to declaring that the United States had “two established religions.”

Until money and free speech can be disentangled—which may be never—the debate is likely to remain academic.

The three men sued to overturn FECA, and a year later the case went before the Supreme Court. What came out of this imbroglio was a now-familiar blend of paradox and good intention and pragmatism. The Court threw out all limitations on money used to voice political opinions not directly connected to a candidacy, because prohibiting this kind of spending was a violation of the First Amendment. The same reasoning led the justices to demolish any limitation on what a candidate could spend in his own behalf. In a dictum still reverberating through our political system, Justice Potter Stewart said: “We are talking about speech, money is speech and speech is money, whether it is buying television or radio time or newspaper advertising, or even buying pencils and paper and microphones.”

But the justices also ruled that there could be limits on direct contributions to candidates, because that money passed out of the giver’s hands and hence no longer belonged to him as speech. They argued that the intent of FECA, to remove the taint of corruption from the political process, made this limitation justifiable.

The frustrating distinction between “hard” money (contributions) and “soft” money (expenditures) was born here. Hard money went directly to a campaign; soft money went anywhere else. Subsequent decisions have widened the soft-money playing field to continental proportions. In 1978 the Court ruled that corporations have First Amendment rights not much different from individuals’; more than a few lawyers concluded that the justices had implicitly declared the 1907 Tillman Act barring corporate contributions unconstitutional. In 1996 the Court ruled that a series of savage advertisements run by the Colorado Republican Federal Campaign Committee against the senatorial candidate Tim Wirth were “independent expenditures” protected by the First Amendment, not “coordinated contributions” to his opponent.

In this relaxed atmosphere PACs, representing business, labor, and assorted special interests such as education and the environment, began to proliferate. In 1974 there were 608 PACs giving $12.5 million. By 1996 there were 4,079 giving $200.9 million. The Federal Election Commission was partly responsible, having issued several opinions that permitted corporations to tap employees as well as stockholders for these artificial entities and even to contribute directly from their treasuries, showing little concern when a PAC and a company were nearly indistinguishable in their interests. PACs have developed habits that do little to increase competition in Congress. They give about 90 percent of their election-year millions to incumbents—that is, to the people who can deliver favors.

In the 1980s, as the Democrats scrambled to catch up with the revivified Republicans under Ronald Reagan, Rep. Tony Coelho, head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, decided that the party of the people could attract business money by the tens of millions. Inevitably this policy involved the party in deals that looked a lot like bribes. By the time the decade ended, Jim Wright, the Democratic Speaker of the House, had been driven from office by conflicts of interest, and Coelho himself had resigned one jump ahead of the House Ethics Committee. Toward the end of Coelho’s tenure, one fundraiser said, “The Democratic party doesn’t stand for anything anymore.”

In the nineties, labor unions, seeking to regain their old clout, have poured millions into the Democrats’ coffers via PACs. Among the biggest givers have been the American Association of State, County and Municipal Employees and the National Education Association. In 1996 they gave $7.3 million. For those with a sense of history, the irony is disquieting. We are back to extracting a percentage of government employees’ income to finance political campaigns, but now we call it union dues.

So we come to the money-drenched election of 1996. The $990.6 million total reflects only the visible part of the iceberg, the national committees. There was no requirement to report how much soft money was funneled to state party organizations. Then there was the “issue advocacy” sector, in which theoretically independent groups such as labor unions bought TV and radio time to purvey their views, to the tune of at least $75 million—again with no requirement to report a cent. A study by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics (CRP) estimates that the real total expenditure figure for 1996 is $2.2 billion.

During the campaign, monitors such as CRP virtually threw up their hands. “There are no limits, there are no rules,” a CRP spokesman said. Each candidate received $62 million in public funding, but this did not stop each party from raising almost $100 million in soft money. Fred Wertheimer, former president of Common Cause, summed up the spectacle in scathing terms. He said President Clinton had broken his “legally binding commitment to the American people.” In accepting public funding, Clinton had agreed to limit the money he raised and spent from other sources. “He exceeded the legal cap by $45 million,” Wertheimer says.


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.

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