John McCain is a nice enough fellow. He wanted to be president. He thought he had an issue — campaign-finance reform — that he could win on. After all, plenty of Americans were angry about political corruption (and still are!). McCain couldn’t stop George W. Bush, but he made a name for himself and he has continued to ride that issue.
This week his campaign-finance reform legislation passed the Senate 59 to 41. But while independent voters were acknowledged as the fuel behind McCain’s popularity, his bill doesn’t have anything to do with the independent movement and its reform agenda. McCain-Feingold is basically a scam.
Essentially what McCain-Feingold is about is two elements of a monopoly, the Democrats and Republicans, trying to cut their campaign costs. It’s as if Ford and Chrysler got together and agreed to cutback how much they were each spending on advertising so they could maintain parity with each other and keep joint control of the market. That’s what the Democrats and Republicans are doing. They agreed to eliminate soft money. They agreed to restrict independent expenditures. In short, they agreed to cut the cost of doing business for themselves. The bill has no impact on opening up the political process — or bringing new players with different points of view into the public-policy debate — or empowering ordinary citizens. It’s got nothing to do with reforming politics.
By now, it’s a well-known axiom of political life in the United States that the parties maintain control by doing the bidding of special interests while co-opting the issues of the independents. That’s what McCain-Feingold is all about.
And what of real reform? I don’t think the problem is that there’s too much money in politics. I think there’s too much politics in money. By that I mean all too many decisions about the economy, such as who gets contracts or who gets to make money, are determined on the basis of politics. The Democrats and Republicans determine what the distribution of wealth in America is going to be. For all the talk about America’s free-market economy, it isn’t. We don’t have a free market. We have a politically-controlled market.
Some people say McCain-Feingold is the biggest reform since the post-Watergate reforms. They might be right that it’s the biggest, but it doesn’t make it a serious reform. John McCain is not a serious reformer. He’s a career politician. If you want to reform the process, you have to open it up and bring the American people in. You’ve got to put independents in the debates–that’s real reform. So are initiative and referenda, same-day voter registration and ballot access reform. You’ve got to break up the control that the two parties have over our elections and government. We have to have more people participating — as voters and as candidates. The Democrats and Republicans have no interest in that whatsoever.
In terms of real campaign-finance reform, the notion that less money in the process increases the honesty of politicians is nonsense. The only way to make politicians more honest is by not making winning so lucrative. You’ve got to handicap the winners to make the process fair. You have to handicap the incumbents for there to be real reform. In horse racing, you add weight to the 2-to-1 shot, not to the 50-to-1 shot. That’s how you make it an even playing field. Politics should be the same way.