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Jewish World Review Oct. 6, 1999 /26 Tishrei, 5760

Mona Charen

Mona Charen
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Thousand clowns --
"WHY DO THESE campaigns take so long?" asked a weary caller to C-SPAN the other day.

Well, it isn't that candidates love living out of suitcases and eating bad chicken so much -- it's campaign finance reform. And if the campaign seems not just long but populated by an extraordinary number of unqualified people -- guess what? It's campaign finance reform again.

Running for president is an extremely expensive proposition. Getting your message to the voters means buying television spots. Fund raising is bound to be a big part of the job for any candidate. But thanks to the contribution limits that were imposed in 1974 (and have not been adjusted for inflation since), candidates must raise money in $1000 increments.

In 1974, a thousand bucks was a lot of money. It isn't anymore. And so candidates must spend hour upon hour cooped up in an office (not their own office if they are elected officials already, but a small carol provided by the political party) and dial for dollars.

Now money and news and polls are joined at the hip. In order to loosen the purse strings of thousands of Americans with political money to spend, the candidates grant interviews and participate in cattle calls like the Iowa Straw poll to generate "buzz." Pollsters ask voters whom of a series of people they are only dimly aware of they would vote for 18 months or 2 years hence. On the strength of that sentiment, the poll's "winner" passes the hat and so it goes.

It is an article of faith among the liberal establishment -- and particularly on the part of the press, whose power would increase if limits were placed on the political speech of others -- that campaign contributions are corrupting public life. Sen. John McCain is running on this theme. But it's a myth.

As Bobby Burchfield has noted in The Weekly Standard: "The largest soft money donation to the Republican National Committee during the 1998 election cycle was $500,000, a lot of money, to be sure, but only 0.28 percent of the RNC's total receipts during that cycle. The largest soft money donation to the Democratic National Committee during the same cycle was $250,000, or 0.21 percent of its receipts. These donations cannot legally be earmarked to aid any specific candidate. Can anyone credibly argue that the RNC or DNC pressures its officeholders to change positions on issues -- inevitably alienating other donors -- to increase its receipts by a few tenths of a percent?"

In fact, special interests rely on lobbying, not donations, to achieve influence. A small example: During last year's tobacco debate, the companies actually reduced their contributions to political parties and increased their lobbying budgets.

All of the campaign finance reforms currently under consideration would limit the ability of groups like the Sierra Club, National Right to Life and other advocacy groups to spend money on getting their preferred candidates elected. Is this not the core of the First Amendment? Nude dancers are considered to be exercising their First Amendment rights but the Sierra Club is to be silenced?

Now what about the amateur hour we're seeing, with everybody who has ever built a skyscraper or played Dick Tracy toying with running for president? It is hard to recall a year when more beginners thought they could be taken seriously as president. From Warren Beatty and Cybil Sheppard to Gary Bauer and Steve Forbes (and leaving out the Reform Party, which is beginning to resemble the bar scene in "Star Wars"), otherwise sane people are running for a job that's a lot harder than it looks. How do we account for this? In part, it may be the office-diminishing character of the Clinton presidency.

But it is also, yes, campaign finance reform.

In order to succeed, you must light up the polls. In order to register in the polls, you must a) be from a famous family, b) be a celebrity in your own right or c) be a zillionaire (the Supreme Court said you can't stop people from spending their own money).

In fact, we do need campaign finance reform. We need to repeal the $1000 limit on contributions or at least increase it dramatically (with prompt Internet disclosure). This would shorten campaigns, permit serious public servants to consider running and eliminate the celebrity strut we're now encouraging.

JWR contributor Mona Charen reads all of her mail. Let her know what you think by clicking here. Please bear in mind, though, that while all letters are read, due to the heavy amount of traffic, not all letters can be answered.

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©1999, Creators Syndicate