Why We Can’t (and Won’t) Control Campaign Spending

May 3, 2015

Once upon a time long long ago, I believed in the capacity for campaign finance reform to fix our broken political system. While I continue to believe it is possible in the abstract, it is practically not feasible. We lack the political will. Apparently, I am not alone. The New York Times quotes FEC chairwoman Ann Ravel as saying, “The likelihood of the laws being enforced is slim,” meaning that there is little the FEC can do to regulate campaign money.

Much of my early research was dedicated to the premise that political science was too often used to defend an untenable status quo. Showing correlations between money and votes, for example, scholars would claim that campaign spending limits in combination with public funding of elections would undermine competitive elections and democratic political participation. Connecting campaign spending to individual survey responses further purported democratic benefits such as more knowledgeable voters (as measured by name recognition and recall) and greater self-reported interest in the campaign. Campaigns unquestionably cost money, so limiting spending could, in theory, adversely affect democratic political outcomes.

All of these propositions can be fairly questioned. Cutting spending to zero would make it impossible to campaign, but how much money was necessary to run a competitive election? Even the work defending the role of money in the political process acknowledges that campaign spending is subject to the law of diminishing returns but what at point did “the law of diminishing marginal returns” mean that additional spending was no longer effective in persuading or mobilizing voters? Moreover, if campaign spending might inform voters, its ability to do so was dependent on the clarity and honesty of campaign messages. Candidates committed to obscuring their message might just as effectively misinform voters or persuade voters via deceptive manipulations. What good was additional campaign spending absent a thoughtful framing of political decisions?f my interest in the substantive arguments about the effect of money on politics remains strong, my interest in campaign reform has waned over time. Not because I believe it is theoretically impossible, but because it is practically impossible. The courts will inevitably undermine reform by equating money with political speech. Strategic political actors, candidates, political parties, and “fat cat” donors will “cheat” by pushing the legal limits until they are no longer recognizable. Enforcement will be minimal or nonexistent. And, the voters won’t do anything about it either because they are mired in apathy or because they are mostly concerned about whether or not their side “won” the election.  On this count, the Democratic Party is far more frustrating. With the rare exception of John McCain, Republicans typically don’t bother pretending that they believe restricting campaign money is important, necessary, or desirable. Democrats, on the other hand, pretend to care but mainly to have “reform” as an issue, not actually engage in reform.

While my interest in substantive arguments about the effect of money on politics remains strong, my interest in campaign reform has waned over time. Not because I believe it is theoretically impossible, but because it is practically impossible. The courts will inevitably undermine reform by equating money with political speech. Strategic political actors, candidates, political parties, and “fat cat” donors will “cheat” by pushing the legal limits until they are no longer recognizable. Enforcement will be minimal or nonexistent. And, the voters won’t do anything about it either because they are mired in apathy or because they are mostly concerned about whether or not their side “won” the election.  On this count, the Democratic Party is far more frustrating. With the rare exception of John McCain, Republicans typically don’t bother pretending that they believe restricting campaign money is important, necessary, or desirable. Democrats, on the other hand, pretend to care but mainly to have “reform” as an issue, not actually engage in reform.

1. The courts will inevitably undermine reform by equating money with political speech. Strategic political actors, candidates, political parties, and “fat cat” donors will “cheat” by pushing the legal limits until they are no longer recognizable. Enforcement will be minimal or nonexistent. And, the voters won’t do anything about it either because they are mired in apathy or because they are mostly concerned about whether or not their side “won” the election.  On this count, the Democratic Party is far more frustrating. With the rare exception of John McCain, Republicans typically don’t bother pretending that they believe restricting campaign money is important, necessary, or desirable. Democrats, on the other hand, pretend to care but mainly to have “reform” as an issue, not actually engage in reform.

2. Strategic political actors, candidates, political parties, and “fat cat” donors will “cheat” by pushing the legal limits until they are no longer recognizable. Enforcement will be minimal or nonexistent. And, the voters won’t do anything about it either because they are mired in apathy or because they are mostly concerned about whether or not their side “won” the election.  On this count, the Democratic Party is far more frustrating. With the rare exception of John McCain, Republicans typically don’t bother pretending that they believe restricting campaign money is important, necessary, or desirable. Democrats, on the other hand, pretend to care but mainly to have “reform” as an issue, not actually engage in reform.

3. Enforcement will be minimal or nonexistent. And, the voters won’t do anything about it either because they are mired in apathy or because they are mostly concerned about whether or not their side “won” the election.  On this count, the Democratic Party is far more frustrating. With the rare exception of John McCain, Republicans typically don’t bother pretending that they believe restricting campaign money is important, necessary, or desirable. Democrats, on the other hand, pretend to care but mainly to have “reform” as an issue, not actually engage in reform.

4. And, the voters won’t do anything about it either because while they claim to be concerned about money in politics, they aren’t willing to do anything about it.  The less active and engaged are mostly apathetic while more active partisans are mostly concerned about whether or not their side “won” the election.  On this count, the Democratic Party is far more frustrating. With the rare exception of John McCain, Republicans typically don’t bother pretending that they believe restricting campaign money is important, necessary, or desirable. Democrats, on the other hand, pretend to care but mainly to have “reform” as an issue, not actually engage in reform.

On this count, the Democratic Party is the far more frustrating. With the rare exception of politicians like John McCain, Republicans typically don’t bother pretending that they believe restricting campaign money is important, necessary, or desirable. Democrats, on the other hand, pretend to care but mainly to have “reform” as a campaign issue, not actually engage in reform.

So I have mostly given up, accepting that the best thing we can do is to try to direct the flow of money into the political system in ways most likely to clarify vote choice or to mobilize voters. This can be accomplished by allowing unlimited (but disclosed) contributions to candidates and political parties, removing the incentive for large donors to create or contribute to outside groups (i.e., SuperPacs). This hardly solves every problem. Candidates and parties will still obfuscate and misinform, but they are at least potentially held accountable at the ballot box. Contributors and active participants will continue to matter more than mere voters, but at least there is some incentive for candidates and parties to engage in mobilization efforts. Unfortunately, unless we want to think more deeply about the meaning of the First Amendment and the relationship between money and speech, it is the best we can do.


Scott Walker v. Martin O’Malley in 2016? (Not Really, but Maybe?)

March 22, 2015

Instead of talking Jeb Bush v. Hillary Clinton in 2016, maybe we should discuss Scott Walker v. Martin O’Malley. I am not entirely serious about this but here is what we know:

  1.  The Republican Party will have a crowded field but will essentially be competing for two sets of voters. Conservatives appealing to the ideological base versus establishment candidates appealing to moderates and “practical” conservatives. Scott Walker, elected in blue-state Wisconsin and the survivor of union-led recall election, has the potential to appeal to both sets of voters.  In 2000, Republican money and organization very smartly united behind George W. Bush early in the campaign process minimizing competition. The only wrinkle was John McCain who apparently didn’t get the memo and made the nomination look potentially interesting until getting decimated by negative campaigning in South Carolina. The Republican Party heading into 2016 is considerably more chaotic making such a strategy untenable, the process far less predictable, and Jeb Bush far less inevitable.  Bush unquestionably brings a lot to the table in terms of money and organization, but he is no sure thing when it comes to the nomination.
  2. On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton looks unbeatable but it is worth remembering that she also looked unbeatable in 2008. The ideological base of the Democratic Party never really embraced the Clintons (Bill or Hillary) and the politics of compromise and triangulation, and has ongoing doubts about a Hillary Clinton presidency. Those doubts are starting to emerge and will be expressed more loudly and clearly as we move closer to the nomination.  The email scandal and the reemergence of Monica Lewinsky are just the beginning. While it is tempting to believe these stories will be pushed solely by Republicans, there are plenty of Democrats willing to play along.  Assuming no other serious candidates emerge, Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley has the potential to capture this dissatisfaction and mount a serious challenge. How serious may well depend on the deftness of the Hillary Clinton campaign and her ability to reassure doubters and unite an uncertain base.

Neither of these outcomes is particularly likely, but the field for 2016 is hardly set, and voters may well be in a mindset of rejecting “politics as usual” which means rejecting the obvious and safe political choices.


Hillary Clinton’s Email

March 6, 2015

News stories don’t just happen, they are created. They endure when they fit an existing narrative or when they serve some useful purpose.

This isn’t an apology for Hillary Clinton’s use of personal email for State Department business, but the story provides interesting insight into her position in the 2016 presidential race and why she is vulnerable despite considerable advantages. First, she is a clear favorite to win the Democratic nomination but for all the attention given to the Tea Party on the right, the left has its fair share of Tea Party envy. These are liberals who have spent too much time watching Aaron Sorkin dramas and waiting for Josiah Bartlett to seize the Democratic nomination and articulate a principled and uncompromising version of Democratic politics. These Democrats have no love for the Clintons who they see as the embodiment of compromise and triangulation, and a corrupt politics of cynicism and manipulation.

Republicans, for their part, have a slew of candidates, but none – at least without the last name of Bush – appears capable right now of competing with Clinton.  Wounding Clinton now can only help the Republican Party by renewing questions about Clinton morality. The familiar storyline from the 1990s of the Clintons disregard for rules reemerges.

With skeptics on the left and enemies on the right, the scandal will most likely linger (unless some new story can push it off the agenda) because it fits into a comfortable narrative. For Hillary Clinton, there is no easy escape. The best way to end the story – releasing the emails – will raise a whole new set of new questions and pushes her campaign (even further) off-message.

The email raises plenty of questions about Hillary Clinton’s fitness to be president, but it also raises questions about who benefits from her downfall. Republicans are the obvious answer, but they aren’t the only beneficiaries at least when it comes to controlling the Democratic nomination and the future of the party.


Frustrating Politics: Why We Can’t Reach Across the Aisle

January 23, 2015

Just an observation.

Liberals tend to believe that if conservatives only knew as much as they did there would be no disagreements. Differences of opinion are based on conservative ignorance and would disappear if conservatives would only stop watching Fox News and start reading the New York Times. This attitude creates a liberalism that is self-righteous and annoying.

Conservatives tend to believe that liberals hold wrong (and often immoral) values. While they may be book smart, they lack common sense and have no clue how the real world works. Differences of opinion would disappear if liberals would go to work and start paying taxes. This attitude creates a conservativism that is self-righteous and annoying.

“We are intellectually superior to you” versus “we are morally superior to you” is no basis of a functioning two-party system.


Giving President Barack Obama Some Credit (Begrudgingly)

December 27, 2014

I was never swept away by the Barack Obama in 2008 and have yet to be fully won over by his presidency. He is too aloof, too impersonal. Even when he gets the policy right, he struggles politically. And while it may be fashionable to blame an obstinate and ideologically rigid Republican Party for Washington’s dysfunction and gridlock, the excuse is a little too convenient and far too easy. Politically adept presidents successfully soften their political opposition. Under President Obama, partisan lines have hardened.

Having said that, the data – and not mere opinion – provide a much more positive assessment of Obama’s tenure as president.

If I were going to draw a historic parallel to Barack Obama, I would go with President George H.W. Bush. Sandwiched between Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton and lacking Reagan’s or Clinton’s charisma, his presidency has been greatly underappreciated.  The economy was never objectively as bad as portrayed in the 1992 election and the budget compromise that proved his undoing – because it violated his “no new taxes” pledge – helped to move government spending from Reagan-Bush deficit spending to a Clinton era surplus.

Many of President Obama’s policies – the economic stimulus, Wall Street bailout, and health care reform – have been similarly unpopular and yet may they have set the stage for economic recovery and growth. At some point, Americans (myself included) may have to – begrudgingly – give him some credit for his policies if not his politics.


The Republican Takeover of the Senate: Implications for Louisiana

November 5, 2014

Had control of the Senate rested on the outcome of Louisiana, money and media attention would have poured into the state at an unprecedented level. The Louisiana Senate race would have been a national affair, arguably to the disadvantage of incumbent Senator Mary Landrieu. Even without the nation hanging in the balance, Louisiana will get its share of campaign spending, media attention, and political activism, but the stakes are not nearly as high. This has the potential to cut either way for the Louisiana Senate race.

  • Licking their wounds from the 2014 beat down, Democrats may work extra hard to save the Louisiana Senate seat. Having won the U.S. Senate, Republicans may not have the same sense of urgency. This has the potential of giving the Landrieu campaign the boost it needs to win the run-off.
  • The more likely scenario is that turnout declines in the run-off, particularly among Democratic voters, giving a boost to the Cassidy campaign.
  • Having the election outside of the national context of the 2014 midterm elections may force voters to look more carefully at the candidates. This should help Landrieu who is more personable. There is a reason she requested six debates.
  • Landrieu’s chairmanship of the Energy Committee is now a moot point. Saving the ranking minority member hardly has the same appeal.
  • Having said that, as a conservative Democrat in a Republican Senate, Landrieu could serve as important broker in any bipartisan negotiations with the White House.   Her influence may be diminished  but it is still very real.
  • All in all, the overall context still favors Cassidy.
  • However, intangibles are also important and Landrieu has been here before and knows how to win a close run-off election.

Ignore the Spin: Midterm Election Edition

November 4, 2014

Republicans will likely win an important victory tonight that will make it even harder for Democrats to win back the House and the Senate in 2016. As a result, divided government is the probably best case scenario for Democrats for the foreseeable future – as they could potentially win back the Senate but not the House. The election, however, means very little for the 2016 presidential election which will be driven by a very different set of contextual influences and political calculations. By midterm standards, the results pale in comparison to 2010 or 2004 and “Republicans in Congress” remain unpopular. Dissatisfaction has not yet melded into Republican support.

On the Democratic side, please disregard any talk about how losing the Senate in 2014 helps in 2016 (it doesn’t) or how the party avoided any even more disastrous outcome. The Democratic silver lining may come in gubernatorial elections, but the gains will hardly offset the loss of Senate control.