Campaign Finance Reform and the 2000 Presidential Campaign

December 16, 1999

Today in New Hampshire, Republican John McCain and
Democrat Bill Bradley are co-hosting a town meeting on the
subject of campaign finance reform. Both candidates have
made campaign reform central to their election efforts,
pledging to forego unrestricted soft money contributions if
either of them wins their respective party nominations. talks with Brookings Institution scholar
Thomas Mann about the McCain-Bradley event and the campaign reform issue
in general. Mann is the W. Averell Harriman Senior Fellow in American
Governance at Brookings and has studied the campaign reform issue closely. Is campaign reform an issue that is so important to
voters that politicians like Bill Bradley and John McCain can build election
victories out of it?

Mann: That remains to be seen. I think at this stage the issue serves to
underscore the populist, insurgent character of the two campaigns more than it
constitutes a serious issue to be debated and resolved. I believe McCain is
using it to try to find resonance with the notion that special interests control
policymaking in Washington. And Bradley is using it to argue his
unconventional, independent, Washington outsider, anti-establishment position
in this campaign. Are Bradley and McCain outlining specific reforms
beyond the no-soft-money pledge?

Mann: McCain has had three versions of a bill that he’s cosponsored with
Senator Russ Feingold. The first one some years ago involved some voluntary
spending limits and public subsidies, as well as restrictions on various kinds of
fundraising and the soft money issue. Since then his bill has been narrowed to
try to attract the super-majority needed in the Senate. My view is that McCain
is really open to various steps he would take beyond abolishing soft money.

Bradley, in his memoirs, actually identified with a system of almost full public
financing, one that really disallowed private contributions to candidates and only
allowed funds to come in through a central pool. Since that time he’s embraced
a less ambitious plan, but it would call for public financing in congressional
elections. I think he’s sympathetic with the voluntary full public financing
proposal that Public Campaign has advocated, and that has been approved but
not implemented by three or four states. His own proposals fall a bit short of
that. What’s your reaction to George W. Bush’s statement in
the last Republican presidential debate that McCain’s campaign reform plan
would kill the Republican Party?

Mann: It’s an argument that Republican senators lead by Mitch McConnell and
Trent Lott have been using in the campaign finance debate. On the merits, I
think it’s simply inaccurate. Republicans have actually a larger hard-money
fundraising advantage over the Democrats than they do a soft-money
advantage. I think it’s hyperbole but it resonates with Republican activists who
are deeply suspicious of any limits on campaign financing. Do you think that the campaign finance issue is
something that will alienate Republican voters from McCain in particular?

Mann: It alienates some Republican activists. How it affects rank-and-file
Republican voters is another matter entirely. McCain’s candidacy is an
insurgency; it’s based on attracting independents who are able to participate in
primaries and more independent-minded Republican identifiers. He knows that
most of his colleagues in the Senate and other Republican officials and
activists are behind George W. Bush and therefore there’s little harm in taking a
position that they find unattractive. I doubt if many Republican voters will cast
their ballots for somebody other than McCain because he advocates the
abolition of soft money. It seems to me that to the extent anyone votes on the
basis of campaign finance in the primaries it will be votes for those advocating
reforms like McCain and Bradley, and Gore for that matter. Whenever Hatch is asked about campaign finance
reform he always points to his Web site, where his contributors are disclosed
immediately. Do you think online disclosure alone dispels the need for
campaign finance reform?

Mann: George W. Bush also announced his decision to post information on his
contributors on his Web site. So that’s been going on for some time. Certainly
one of the proposals advocated by some Republicans is called ‘deregulate and
disclose’; that is to say, take all rules off campaign contributions, remove all
provisions for public financing, but upgrade the disclosure of all campaign
contributions and expenditures. So ‘deregulate and disclose’ is certainly a
policy preferred by a number of Republican politicians, but I think there’s no
sign that it resonates with the broader public. Certainly there’s support for
improved disclosure. Basically everyone agrees with that and we will soon be
making more systematic use of the Internet for that very purpose. I don’t think
you will find a groundswell of public support for further deregulation of the
system. Is today’s joint appearance by McCain and Bradley the
first you can recall where candidates from two different parties joined forces on
this issue?

Mann: It sure is. It is very unusual, but I think there is a commonality of interest
here. There have been discussions and efforts around the reform community to
see if there wasn’t a way of advancing the candidacies of both McCain and
Bradley. Those who are deeply concerned about campaign finance would like to
elevate both of their candidacies even if they might identify with one party over
the other. In some ways this makes sense.

Of course, it is New Hampshire, there’s the history of the Clinton-Gingrich
handshake that proved so ineffectual. It will be interesting to see exactly what
McCain and Bradley commit to if they were to be successful in winning their
nominations and then if one of them were to be elected president. It’s one thing
for one individual to commit to something, but in most cases in the American
political system, even if an individual is president, he is not in the position to
decree what new law will be. If either Bradley or McCain actually got the nomination,
do you think the incentives are so great that they would ultimately fall more in
line with the status quo?

Mann: It’s not a matter of them falling in line, it’s a question of whether either
could succeed. Presidents are not dictators. They don’t make pronouncements
of policy; they make recommendations, they try to rally support, they can
make a difference on occasion. Whether or not they could succeed in this
arena is uncertain. McCain, as a Republican, would make it more interesting in
the sense that it’s Republicans who have opposed more recent measures to
abolish soft money and more fully regulate so-called sham issue advocacy.

There’s also some question about how genuine Democrat support has been.
There’s always the possibility that a President McCain could increase
Republican support but find the Democrats back off. So there’s no guarantee
with this. The one important development here is that two major presidential
candidates are talking about an issue that has not yet been ranked very high by
the public on their list of priorities. This might alter the visibility, the perceived
importance, the sense of possibility of real change felt by the public. That over
the long haul might make a difference; it might increase the prospects of some
reform. I think the larger point is that there’s no final solution to the campaign
finance problem. There are inherent difficulties and tensions here. The issue is
whether we can keep wrestling with those problems, fix them temporarily and
keep at it. I suspect the country and the politicians will never be happy with the
way in which we regulate campaign finance. But if that’s the case in the United
States, all I can do is reassure them that that’s the case in the rest of the
democratic world as well. What about the growth of the Internet as a political tool
and platform? Does that growth in any way deflate arguments in favor of things
like free media and free air time?

Mann: I don’t think it deflates it. There’s no question that the Internet is
increasingly being used for political communication in campaigns, but it still is
secondary to other forms of political communication. That will change in the
years ahead, but for the time being television, radio, direct mail are all essential
features of political campaigns. Efforts to try to provide free airtime and
subsidize mailings for candidates remain very relevant.