Political Parties Now Facing ‘Tough Love’

November 10, 2002

Political parties are often viewed as bystanders in the candidate-centered world of politics. In reality they play critical roles in elections and policymaking, particularly given today’s potent mix of two parties that are consummate fund-raisers, ideologically polarized and at parity.

Yet voices are being raised that the 2002 midterm election produced the high-water mark for political parties. Their argument is that the new campaign finance reform law, which bans “soft money” to parties and regulates electioneering communications by groups, will inevitably weaken parties—as national organizations linking voters and elected officials, as federal entities connecting groups of like-minded citizens across levels of government, and as broadly based institutions resisting the fragmenting effects of interest-group politics. This party-based critique of the new law, along with the claim that it violates the free speech guarantee of the First Amendment, constitutes the central line of attack by those challenging the constitutionality of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, which was enacted earlier this year and scheduled to take effect in the next election cycle.

The parade of horribles conjured up by critics—removing national parties from elections, crippling state and local parties, criminalizing routine contacts among party and elected officials, depressing voter turnout, and rendering the parties helpless in the face of electioneering by special interests—would give any serious student of American politics pause. But each of these charges evaporates under careful scrutiny.

Parties will certainly change if the new law is upheld by the Supreme Court but mostly for the better. However, the law is best viewed as a kind of “tough love” for political parties, forcing them to break some newly acquired bad habits and return to their comparative advantages that were in evidence as recently as the 1980s.

First a bit of history. Federal law has long prohibited corporations and unions from drawing on their treasuries to contribute to federal election campaigns. In 1974 Congress also limited the amount that individuals could contribute to candidates and parties. But in the late 1970s the national parties were permitted by the Federal Election Commission to set up nonfederal accounts to finance activities on behalf of state and local candidates. Soon they began raising funds directly from corporations and unions as well as wealthy individuals, which they then used to finance campaign activities benefiting the party ticket in battleground states. What started as a modest initiative in the 1980 election—$19 million in soft money or 9 percent of total party spending—exploded in 1996 to $272 million. By the 2000 cycle the parties spent $497 million in soft money, mostly in transfers to state parties for TV ads featuring specific federal candidates. The trend continued unabated in the just completed election.

The new law is a modest effort to revitalize a democracy that has been hijacked by a cynical evasion of federal laws enacted to limited the impact of concentrated economic power and great individual wealth on federal elections—and the conflicts of interest and distorting effects on policy making that flow from it. It does this primarily by rebuilding the firewall between corporate and union treasuries and federal campaign activity.

Political parties will adapt successfully to the prohibition on soft money. They raised over $700 million in hard money in the 2000 election and can compensate for most or all of the lost soft money by redirecting their fund-raising energies and taking advantage of more generous hard money contribution limits (individuals can now give as much as $57,500 to parties during a two-year cycle).

The national parties will almost certainly divert more of their resources from television advertising in a handful of targeted races to grassroots activities on behalf of a larger number of candidates and broader party interests. And state and local parties will become less vehicles for laundering soft money contributions and more genuine partners with their national counterparts.

The rise of soft money and of electioneering in the guise of issue advocacy put parties in the unfortunate position of middleman between large private interests seeking public favors and ambitious elected officials aggressively soliciting large political contributions from those private interests. The new law frees them to reassume an equally active but more honest, honorable, and essential role in American democracy.