As if my earlier essay on why “We Need More Attack Ads in Political Campaigns” wasn’t incendiary enough, allow me to heap praise on this outstanding new oped by Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen “In Defense of Big Money in Politics.” Few things get me more steamed than when Democrats and Republicans decry “big money” in politics and claim we need to aggressively clamp down on it. What’s even more insulting is when they say this is a smart way to encourage 3rd party political candidates and movements.
What’s really going on here is simple protectionism. The reason that today’s politicians want to regulate cash in campaigns is because the two parties already own the system. Believe me, as someone who has NEVER voted for a politician from either of the two leading parties, I would love for it to be the case that clamping down on campaign spending actually helped 3rd party candidates. Richard Cohen’s column explains why that certainly wasn’t the case with Eugene McCarthy’s historic 1968 challenge to Lyndon Johnson, which was fueled by “big money” contributions from a handful of major donors. Here’s how Cohen begins his piece:
Sheldon Adelson is supposedly a bad man. The gambling mogul gave $5 million to a Newt Gingrich-loving super PAC and this enabled Gingrich to maul Mitt Romney — a touch of opinion here — who had it coming anyway. Adelson is a good friend of Gingrich and a major player in Israeli politics. He owns a newspaper in Israel and supports politicians so far to the right I have to wonder if they are even Jewish. This is Sheldon Adelson, supposedly a bad man. But what about Howard Stein? The late chairman of the Dreyfus Corp. was a wealthy man but, unlike Adelson, a liberal Democrat. Stein joined with some other rich men — including Martin Peretz, the one-time publisher of the New Republic; Stewart Mott, a GM heir; and Arnold Hiatt of Stride Rite Shoes — to provide about $1.5 million for Eugene McCarthy’s 1968 challenge to Lyndon Johnson. Stein and his colleagues did not raise this money in itsy-bitsy donations but by chipping in large amounts themselves. Peretz told me he kicked in $30,000. That was a huge amount of money at the time.
As Cohen points out, while many campaign regulation fans today “pooh-pooh the argument that money is speech, they cannot deny that when McCarthy talked — when he had the cash for TV time or to set up storefront headquarters — that was political speech at the highest decibel.” Amen, brother. McCarthy changed history. His was easily the most important 3rd party run of the past half century, and one of the most important in American history.
If we want more serious 3rd party candidates, then we need more cash in politics. Lots more. Unlimited, direct to candidate contributions. Let’s have Robert Redford and his Hollywood buddies open their checkbooks and fund a serious run by the Green Party, or let wealthy industrialists fund a Libertarian Party candidate. Or whatever else.
But won’t that be “corrupting,” the skeptics ask? We can handle that: Just demand transparency. Force them to tell us where the money is coming from. We already have laws that do that.
In the meantime, I would really appreciate it if all those politicians and academics who say they are just trying help out independents like me would just quit it. They are not helping us get more 3rd party voices into the American political system; they’re making it harder than ever for them to even exist.