Open Letter to Liberals: On Campaign Finance Reform, You Have Fewer Friends Than You Think

Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Shaun McCutcheon Plaintiff, McCutcheon v. FEC
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Here’s an old news flash, but a news flash nonetheless.

As early as December, 2015, Sen. Bernie Sanders broke the record for the number of individual contributions received at that point in time during a presidential campaign. It was while that month’s Democratic presidential debate was being aired (by major media) that his campaign reached $2.3 million in contributions, breaking the record ($2.2 million) that President Obama set in 2012.

Sen. Sanders jubilantly acknowledged that this money allows him to get his message out to the electorate. His message: no money in politics!

That sounds rather ironic, don’t you think? Get the money out of politics even though he needs your money to do so?

Isn’t there a massive intellectual contradiction when liberals like Sanders lend their support to anything that looks, feels, or smells like campaign finance regulation? Absent such reform, the Sanders campaign (like Obama’s before) is not just doing well; it is actually creating a forum in which all voters can participate directly and effectively. It’s called democracy and your money makes it possible – money that can be contributed painlessly by most voters, regardless of their relative economic situation. Presumably, you’ll get your investment back later.

In fact, the average contribution to the Sanders campaign made while the debate raged on was below $25. Indeed, just such contributions allegedly built the Sanders populist movement; as of this writing, that real movement still threatens the mighty Clinton machine, which relies on much more lavish support from Wall Street, labor unions, and assorted billionaires with names like Soros and Buffett. Certainly Sanders has more support direct from average people instead of the institutional money that dominates campaigns.

The grand irony is that it is just such a participatory democracy that I – an arch-conservative Republican – had in mind when I won my case, McCutcheon v. FEC, in the U.S. Supreme Court, which struck down aggregate limits on the number of candidates and parties and committees to whom individual donors can contribute. So in one sense I agree with Sanders; money from willing private citizens is great for the American process – money from the government itself is the worst that’s really all about incumbents giving themselves more money and power.

Yes, it is money that makes grassroots democracy, or any other kind of democracy, possible. It is money that enables underdogs to compete and get their message out. It is money that binds loyalties; that turns political dilettantes into impassioned, engaged participants with a real stake in the discussion and the outcome. It’s the kind of democracy that at least one semi-liberal named Jefferson had in mind some years ago. Jefferson also believed strongly in individual rights, which democrats no longer seem to care about these days. Today, some incumbents are even smart enough to get out of paying for some prime time advertising. They get “free media,” which means the media outlets temporarily eat the high costs for the overall “ratings” improvement.

But there is another large question that campaign finance reform enthusiasts must ask themselves before they conclude that Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton or any other well-entrenched liberal will actually champion their cause in the long run. Knowing politicians as I do, they don’t like to fix things (broken or not) that play to their advantage, and they only really play by the rules when – like incumbents, whose power is assured by financing restrictions that set formidable odds against would-be challengers – those rules support their interests. Why would Sanders or Clinton want to change a game they seem to be winning?

So I ask a couple of favors from those who are motivated by campaign finance reform to vote for a Sanders or a Clinton. First, please consider the possibility that you might be wrong; that, in fact, the freest flow of cash ensures the freest flow of ideas and the best competition with more candidates. Once you’ve refused to consider that likelihood (as I expect you will), ask yourselves who your real friends are when it comes to campaign financing or if you even have any.

Before you cry out in righteous indignation, consider as an example the recent revelation that $16 million in Sanders contributions were unverified credit contributions from people claiming to be unemployed.  

Sanders is indeed the only presidential candidate to opt out of bank verification. For all we know, those humble little donations that define Sanders as a champion of the common man may actually come from corporations or unions or Bernie’s friends over at the NRA. There’s a law pending, HR4177, that would require candidates to let banks use their normal verification process. The Sanders campaign has dismissed that law as “a solution in search of a problem.”

Sanders’ position here underscores the duplicity with which campaign finance reformers operate when they run for office. My word, they won’t even support a measure to prevent fraud but they want limits on campaign money! It confirms our point that rules are made to be broken even by, or especially by, those who lobby most strenuously for new rulemaking of one sort or another.

Campaign finance reform has become favorite battle cry; you trot out the punishment message to stir up the crowd, and then let it die away as your coffers begin to explode with cash. Or, for losers like Jeb Bush, you zealously attack Super PACs in a last-ditch effort to engender some kind of support. Friend Jeb had no such compunctions about Super PACs when it seemed he could be a shoo-in for the nomination. Yet no Super PAC or any amount of money was able to keep Bush afloat, a fact we should bear in mind before we get hysterical about Super PACs. They operate within their rights and their power is subject to vox populi. They do not control our democracy. If they did, we’d have a very different slate of candidates on show today. The end of the Bush dynasty proves Sanders is dead wrong and that elections can’t really be bought. Just ask Eric Cantor how it works if you still don’t believe it.

For politicians, arguing for campaign finance reform is like publicly opposing your own income and conveniently losing. If I were a campaign finance reform supporter, I’d be apoplectic. I’d have to ask myself, who are my real friends on this issue? Those who just talk about the issue, or those who have a real interest in altogether stanching the flow of money to control speech?

The only real friends that the so called reformers have are those who don’t need to raise a single penny, including incumbents with huge campaign funds or those who don’t need or want money from the unemployed. Certainly, they are those who want challengers like Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio, as well as Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton, frustrated at every turn of the fundraising wheel. Those who are quite content, simply enough, to write their own checks.

Reformers, you don’t have that many real friends because the only real ones you have are billionaires and not too many billionaires run for office. The ones who do run for office love every word that comes out of your mouth on this issue. Your interests coincide. Indeed, if campaign finance reform is the only issue on your mind, you should not have voted for Bernie Sanders in New Hampshire.

You should have voted for Donald Trump.

Shaun McCutcheon, an electrical engineer in Alabama is the successful plaintiff in McCutcheon vs FEC and author of Outsider Inside the Supreme Court