20 August 2008

Campaign Contributions, Then and Now

Senator McCain doesn't talk as much about campaign finance reform as he used to. That's because he needs the support of a Republican "base" that hates the idea and still distrusts him because he supported it. McCain hasn't renounced anything yet, but some observers have noted that, in promising to appoint Supreme Court justices on the Scalia-Roberts-Alito model, he'd probably be building a majority for declaring the McCain-Feingold law unconstitutional. Noting that, some question the sincerity of his promise, but it may just be proof of his surrender to his base.

McCain's hero is Theodore Roosevelt, another detail that makes the "base" distrust him. Roosevelt was too energetic a leader, too determined to govern corporations as well as ordinary people, for modern Republican tastes. He's a creature of the Progressive Era, during which one discovers a phenomenon that seems to be ahead of its time. During the 1908 presidential election, Democrat William Jennings Bryan and Republican William Howard Taft agreed to make public all donors and donations to their campaigns. The result was a significant drop in campaign donations for both parties.

My work involves research in early 20th century newspapers. At work today I found an editorial from one of my hometown papers commenting on the 1908 reform and its apparent consequences. It's worth looking at for what it tells us about attitudes toward campaign financing one hundred years ago and how one writer felt elections would or should evolve. This is the Troy Record for August 22, 1908:

The managers of both parties this year have been complaining with an asperity which is born of tact that they can receive no contributions for the conduct of the fight for the presidency commensurate with the needs of the situation. That is to say, those who have the duty of providing the funds have been unable to secure under the new system of publicity anything like the sums which were theirs under the old system of finance.

* * *
[T]he idea of publicity has frightened many of the large givers from the usual contributions. It is generally felt throughout the country that the sums raised, mounting up at recent elections to as much as [cue Dr. Evil] ten millions, is largely spent in enriching worthless men and in the purchase of votes. Men of high standing who might have winked at this under cover hesitate to place themselves in a position where they will appear to their fellows as defending the use of money in corrupting the electorate.Then again it is generally believed that no protection can be gained by any man or circle of men by large gifts this year. The moral sense of the nation is awake and would refuse to aid in any such agreement, even if only a silent one. In fact, any man who represented certain interests, if he gave to the campaign fund, would mark himself in such a way that he would be liable to invite the very attacks which he would wish to ward off. This, added to the decision of both parties not to accept gifts from corporations and their unwillingness to take large sums from anybody, has made the area of collection an arid desert.
Wall street ordinarily contributes the major part of the fund. This year Wall street is not kindly disposed to either candidate and cares very little which of them is elected. Either one of them would like to attack some of the methods by which the denizens of 'the street' win their fortunes.
The result is that the pockets of the campaign managers are not bulging with wealth. Mr. Bryan, after an attempt to raise large sums by dollar contributions, must be willing to admit that it is a failure if the figures published are true....The Republican party has done little better. While not advertising their failure specifically it is known that Mr. Sheldon [a GOP campaign manager] is quite discouraged at the results thus far and the prospects. It appears that there will be little money expended this year for the usual sideshows and the purchase of votes and extraordinary speakers. The day of long parades, political clubs, banners tossed in the breeze and constant excitement is over. The nation is getting out of its childhood.
And is it not a good mark of advancement in the development of a nation? Instead of trying to sweep the citizens of a country from their feet by means of every trick of professional stampeders, the political leaders are to appeal to voters by the more sensible method of public speech and printed circular. Instead of purchasing the electorate the present method is gradually working toward the honest conduct of elections. Instead of expending great sums for tin and tinsel the parties are coming to the conclusion that the only thing necessary is to present both sides of the question to every voter and let that voter decide.
That is the only way that pure government can be attained, and it does not cost the immense sums that were formerly spent on various foolish and showy exploits. This year the managers will be compelled from general poverty to approach to that ideal position. It will do no harm and may become the rule hereafter. Let us hope that the nation has reached a point in this matter from which there will need be no retreat.

Let history judge. I can't help but think that campaign spending, and hence campaign donations have skyrocketed beyond the numbers, even adjusted for inflation, that appalled this writer. I have to suspect that fundraising and its accompanying corruptions (particularly the abuse of funds through the creation of 'foundations' and nepotistic hiring practices) have reached new levels following the emergence of TV commercials as the main means of getting out your message.
Here are two questions: First, as a form of political speech, do TV commercials come closer to our writer's ideal of "public speech and printed circular ... present[ing] both sides of the question" or closer to the 'trick[s] of professional stampeders," the "tin and tinsel," and "various foolish and showy exploits"? Second, has the recognition by the Supreme Court in 1976 of campaign donations themselves as a form of political speech immunized big donors and fundraisers from the suspicion and shame that once surrounded them? Depending on your answers, you might try a third question: what's become of this country?

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