For many years, Democrats have wanted more restrictive campaign finance rules, while Republicans have wanted to loosen restrictions. But it’s likely that the 2016 campaign will feature more outside money than ever before, as millionaires and billionaires take advantage of an almost-anything-goes environment to buy themselves candidates and shift the race in their favored direction. The Koch brothers alone plan to spend nearly a billion dollars (with the help of some friends) on the election.
Nevertheless, the consensus on the campaign finance issue has long been that while voters are generally in favor of reform, it isn’t a motivating issue for many of them. They care more about the economy or health care or foreign policy, and while they might shake their head at the influence of money in politics, in the end the issue won’t make much of a difference in the campaign’s outcome.
But is it possible that 2016 will be the year it finally does? Matea Gold has a piece in the April 20 Washington Post arguing that it might:
At almost the same time that a Florida mailman was landing a gyrocopter in front of the U.S. Capitol to protest the influence of the wealthy on politics, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was getting pressed about the same topic at a town hall meeting in Londonderry, N.H.
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It’s the last part that’s really a surprise. Republicans have usually put the emphasis on maximal liberty, arguing that restrictions on contributions and outside spending infringe upon the First Amendment. Democrats counter that a liberty that’s available only to the super-wealthy isn’t much of a liberty at all, and all this money, particularly when it’s so hard to know where it comes from, inevitably has a corrupting influence on politics. But now even Republicans seem to be saying things have gone too far.
Of course, it’s easy to just shake your head and say, “Yeah, it’s gotten really bad,” before you head off to your next fundraiser or meeting with Sheldon Adelson. And that’s how lots of candidates have handled the issue in the past: some general words of agreement or a vaguely worded position that doesn’t lock them in to doing much of anything about the problem.
But even if most voters don’t put campaign finance at the top of their priority list, there’s an opening for a candidate who can connect disgust over the political situation in Washington (which has become almost universal) with displeasure over the funding of campaigns to devise a broad reform agenda.
There are already ideas out there. For instance, Rep. John Sarbanes has a bill that would provide refundable tax credits for political contributions and give significant matching funds for small-dollar contributions in an attempt to amplify the voices of ordinary people who can only give a limited amount. That might not put the billionaires out of the politics business, but a candidate could use that idea or something like it to demonstrate his or her commitment to specific policy change, as opposed to just saying they wish the system were cleaner.
Clinton could be that candidate – though she hasn’t yet said anything specific about what she would change. But a Republican could as well. For the last couple of decades, presidential candidates have been saying they'll change Washington by bringing Democrats and Republicans together to transcend partisanship, something no one believes anymore. But if (nearly) everyone thinks there’s too much money in the system and too much of it is unaccountable, there’s a political opportunity here. Will any candidate seize it?
Waldman is a contributor to The Post’s Plum Line blog.