by Steve Chapman
McCain is running for president on a simple theme: He wants to break the power of special interests by enacting campaign finance reform. "Today, special interests and their unlimited campaign funds dominate Washington," he laments. "Reform of our campaign financing laws is the first change necessary to restore faith in our political processes and make government accountable to the people," he says. "We're going to kick those big-money folks out of Washington," he vows.
Campaign finance is not just another issue to McCain. No -- it's the key to everything. In his view, you cannot fix any other problems until you fix the campaign finance system. Why? Because the campaign finance laws assure undue influence to special interests, which have a stake in existing arrangements and will use every bit of their clout to prevent needed changes.
"The only way we can restore America's greatness is to restore America's pride in our institutions of government by ridding our nation of the pernicious effects of unregulated soft money," insists McCain. Trying to cure other problems without first banishing soft money, he believes, is like trying to treat an infection without antibiotics.
One problem with this diagnosis is that it's historically inaccurate. Over the last two decades, our political leaders have shown themselves fully capable of bringing about dramatic changes in policy. Jimmy Carter deregulated the airline and trucking industries. Ronald Reagan pushed through big tax cuts in 1981 and a drastic overhaul of the tax code five years later. George Bush and Bill Clinton campaigned successfully for the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Clinton and the Republican Congress have hardly been inert. They've adopted major welfare reforms, turned huge deficits into surpluses, and slashed defense spending. Each of these changes were a threat to various interests, but they all got through.
McCain's vision also asks too much of campaign finance laws. If you ban soft money, people who are affected by federal policy will find other avenues to try to get their way. If they are restricted in giving to candidates or parties, they can buy newspaper ads and TV commercials aimed at helping their political friends. For that matter, they can buy newspapers and TV networks. They can finance sympathetic think tanks and advocacy groups.
And, thanks to their First Amendment right to petition the government, the big-money folks can stay in Washington and spend as much they want to lobby Congress and the executive branch. McCain does not make a habit of mentioning that in 1998, the 10 biggest corporate soft-money contributors spent nearly nine times as much on lobbying as they gave in soft money.
But the biggest flaw in McCain's approach is that it's a triumph of process over substance. McCain is bravely trying to vanquish the special interests so he can ... what? From his campaign, it's impossible to identify any major, fundamental change in federal policy that he wants -- much less one that special interests are blocking.
He says, "Only by breaking their chokehold on the White House and Congress can we lower taxes, eliminate pork barrel spending, and return government to you." Lower taxes? McCain takes great pride that he wants to cut taxes by less than George W. Bush or Steve Forbes.
Eliminate pork barrel spending? McCain gets excellent marks from the National Taxpayers Union, which rates every member of Congress according to their efforts to cut the federal budget. But during his presidential campaign, he's been almost completely silent on the subject. In his position papers, he vows to cut "billions of dollars of pork barrel spending" without identifying a single outlay he would kill.
Meanwhile, McCain makes it sound like hardly anyone will be pushed away from the federal trough. He opposes any cuts in Social Security benefits, calls for more spending on Medicare, promises health insurance coverage for all, demands higher pay for the military, and complains that the defense budget is at "the lowest level since the Great Depression." Apparently, McCain has learned an old trick of big spenders: bribing voters with their own money.
One reason he has become the darling of the news media, which are generally allergic to Republican tightwads, is that he shows no desire to reduce the size of government. Despite the maverick image, he's offering himself as a faithful guardian of the status quo. Writing in the liberal magazine The New Republic, Jonathan Chait says, "Conservatives are convinced that McCain is no longer one of them. And they are right."
McCain would have us believe he will return government to the people by slaying the special interest dragons. Sounds neat, but someone ought to ask: And then what?
February 6, 2000 (http://www.monitor.net/monitor) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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