Magazine article The American Prospect


Magazine article The American Prospect


Article excerpt

In the final weeks of the 1968 election, Hubert H. Humphrey was closing in on Richard Nixon. Supporters of George Wallace's third-party campaign were returning to the Democratic fold, and Humphrey was winning renewed support from liberals after calling for a bombing halt in Vietnam. It seemed Humphrey might have a chance.

Except for one problem: Humphrey was broke. Lyndon Johnson controlled hundreds of thousands of dollars in a "President's Fund," but he wouldn't release them for his vice president. Humphrey couldn't even afford to run television commercials until a few weeks before the election. The Nixon campaign, by contrast, was lavishly funded. While many factors hurt the Democrats that awful year--Vietnam, urban riots, the raucous Chicago convention--it is clear that if Humphrey (who ended up losing by just 1 percent of the vote) had even come close to matching Nixon's financial resources, the Democrat could have won the election.

Since then, no presidential contest has been determined--or even greatly affected--by a financial imbalance between the parties. Reform laws passed in the wake of Watergate both limited and equalized spending. And while the arms race in soft money (large contributions funneled through the Republican and Democratic parties, rather than directly to the candidates) has wildly escalated in recent years, the parties have basically kept pace with each other. Yes, the campaign finance system that has developed is appalling and corrupting. It unquestionably tilts House and Senate races and presidential primaries, too. But it has generally been understood that, post-Watergate, campaign spending alone cannot determine the occupant of the highest office in the land.

Until now. George W. Bush is attracting campaign cash the way a magnet attracts metal filings. Fred Wertheimer, who is the former president of the campaign watchdog group Common Cause and who now heads the think tank Democracy 21, worries that the 2000 presidential election could be a financial blowout. "Based on what has happened so far," he told me, "I would estimate that--assuming Bush is the nominee--he will be operating with twice as much candidate hard money in the primaries and twice as much soft money as the Democratic nominee will. And that may well be a conservative estimate." Professor Anthony Corrado of Colby College, probably the most respected academic analyst of campaign-money trends, says, "It is clearly the case that the financial gap will be the greatest in this election ... since before the 1974 election laws." People directly involved in raising money for candidates in the 2000 election confirm the likelihood of a potentially staggering GOP advantage.

Laws passed after Watergate were supposed to prevent this. In the aftermath of Nixon's 1972 re-election--with its revelations of campaign funds laundered through Mexico and cabinet secretaries carrying cash in paper bags--Congress passed the landmark 1974 campaign finance law, which stated that presidential candidates who limited their spending to a set amount would receive matching federal funds in the party primaries. The nominees of the two major parties would each receive a block grant for the fall campaign and were not supposed to engage in fundraising beyond that. And while in its decision in Buckley v. Valeo the Supreme Court struck down many of the provisions designed to clean up congressional races, the strict rules for presidential campaigns were kept largely in place.

For years the new system worked, though it unraveled a bit each election cycle. In 1976, limited to little more than their $22 million in public funding, the two parties each raised almost exactly the same amount of money. In 1980 parties began to raise unregulated soft money to augment the limited presidential funds. In 1984 both Walter Mondale and Ronald Reagan began to widen the loopholes in the law: Mondale raised off-the-books money from unions, and Reagan raised substantially larger amounts from business. …

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