According to Daniel Henninger of the Wall Street Journal, we have McCain-Feingold to thank for the current monstrously long presidential campaign cycle (see here). No good deed goes unpunished and every government action carries with it unintended consequences.
Campaign finance reformers wanted to get “big money” out of national politics (and create a stronger incumbency protection system at the same time — but that’s another story). So they implemented a cap on personal campaign contributions that currently stands at $2,300. This means that candidates have to get money from a very broad base of small time contributors instead of from a few well heeled contributors. (Unless you have enough personal wealth to fund much of your own campaign.)
But it takes a long time, a lot of work, and a lot of expense to pull together enough small chunks of contributions to run an effective campaign. The cost of fundraising under this paradigm has gone through the roof. The unintended side effect of campaign finance reform, claims Henninger, is that candidates must start very early and campaign in constant sales pitch mode.
So you end up with bundlers that gather together loads of $2,300 contributions and turn them over to campaigns. Only, some of those contributions end up coming from dubious sources, as was the case with bundler Norman Hsu. And because some change in affairs could “turn a commitment [made] way back when into an embarrassment 14 months later,” you end up with candidates that campaign “more or less about nothing.” They engage in major arguments about issues that are relatively unimportant and avoid solid commitments to anything substantive.
The media and the pollsters love this lengthened campaign season. But already, with almost 11 months to go, pollsters are finding decreasing levels of voter interest in the candidates. It’s campaign fatigue. Voters feel about the campaign the way shoppers feel about the store downtown that has been holding a going out of business sale for the last two years. “The result,” Henninger observes, could be that “Mike Huckabee may win Iowa in large part because he gives people a good laugh.”
The obvious solution is to realize that our well intentioned campaign finance reform law is a failure, and scrap it. Let any American contribute any amount they want to any campaign they want, but require that all contributions be immediately posted publicly. Allow full transparency so that everyone can see who is supporting whom. This is more like the American way.
Another alternative would be to go with the heavy hand of the all-wise government approach. Put limits on campaign spending and legally limit campaign activities to a certain period of time prior to the election. Of course, this approach assumes that voters can’t be trusted to figure out what candidates are up to. It would only invite more Hsu-like corruption and lawyers would get rich wrangling over the definition of campaign activity.
The answer does not lie in more campaign restrictions. Rather, more openness is needed. Dumping the $2,300 contribution cap in favor of contribution transparency would shorten campaign cycles. Would this system be problem free? Nope. No system would be. But it would be better than what we have today, and it would be better than more heavy handed government control.