Curbing Campaign Cash: Henry Ford, Truman Newberry, and the Polities of Progressive Reform

By Samples, John | The Cato Journal, Spring-Summer 2013 | Go to article overview

Curbing Campaign Cash: Henry Ford, Truman Newberry, and the Polities of Progressive Reform


Samples, John, The Cato Journal


Curbing Campaign Cash: Henry Ford, Truman Newberry, and the Polities of Progressive Reform

Paula Baker

Lawrence, Kans.: University Press of Kansas, 2012, 190 pp.

No one has yet written a detailed history of campaign finance regulation, even limited to the United States. In 1988, Robert E. Mutch published Campaigns, Congress, and Courts: The Making of Federal Campaign Finance Law. He then embarked on research seeking to fill out that story in the late 19th century. My own The Fallacy of Campaign Finance Reform combines public choice analysis with political theory in a way that historians might not recognize. Ray LaRaja's excellent Small Change: Money, Political Parties, and Campaign Finance Reform examines a larger historical tableau from a political science perspective. Paula Baker is apparently at work on a broader history of campaign finance and its regulation. This work began as a case study in that project and grew into a book. I look forward to the broader history, but I am happy to have this work.

Baker is a well-qualified historian. She has extensively studied and written about U.S. political and women's history. In particular, she has edited a collection of essays, Money and Politics, along with other scholarship on American political history. She also served as a special assistant at the Department of Labor in Washington. Her firsthand acquaintance with national politics and politicians redounds to the benefit of her scholarship. She is realistic about the motives of her subjects without falling into a casual cynicism or an unmerited idealism.

The 1918 U.S. Senate race in Michigan did not lack for characters. The desultory reader of history will likely know that Henry Ford was a man of enormous achievement and odd views. President Woodrow Wilson thought Ford would be a likely winner in the Senate contest and a sure vote for the League of Nations, despite the businessman's bitter opposition to entering World War I. Ford's eventual opponent, Truman Newberry, was the scion of a Detroit family noted more in social circles than in politics. Where Ford was difficult and demanding to all, Newberry was benign and rather indifferent to power and fame.

Neither man had a taste for politics. Having been persuaded by Wilson to run for the Senate, Ford declared his lack of interest in the job and in being a politician. For his part, Newberry did not so much run for the Senate as stand and wait while his handlers put together a majority in the Republican primary and a narrow win in the fall. The voters did not seem to mind that neither man had much to do with actual politics.

All things being equal, Newberry should have lost badly to Ford, who was known to most of the nation as a manufacturer of reasonably priced autos who paid his workers well. Newberry needed something to level the playing field with his celebrity opposition. His wealth was that something. It attracted talent to run his campaign: Paul H. King was a well-connected and extremely savvy political organizer mad campaign manager, a Karl Rove of Michigan politics. King used Newberry's wealth (and that of his friends and family) to publicize his candidate. That task meant paying for advertising and flacks.

King's campaign for Newberry set new records for federal elections. Baker estimates the effort cost at least $190,000 in 1918 dollars (or about $3 million in current dollars). Many contemporaries seemed genuinely shocked by that sum. We would not be. Elizabeth Warren and Scott Brown raised and spent $70 million contesting a Massachusetts Senate seat in 2012. Spending on elections does seem to be a luxury good.

Baker indicates that while a lot of money was spent, no one did anything illegal. King ran an effective campaign that required a lot of cash to get the job done. …

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