Politics & Policy

A Campaign Reformers Should Love

George W. Bush is raising money the way reformers wanted.

Why aren’t campaign-finance reformers happy with George W. Bush? As the president raises money for his reelection campaign, he’s living the reformers’ dream — collecting limited amounts of hard money from real people who want to be a part of the political process. He’s not having small, private dinners with fat cats who write $2 million checks. He’s having big, public dinners with people who write $2,000 checks. Isn’t that what the reformers wanted?

Bush’s post-reform math is simple. Get 500 people to give $2,000, and you’ve got $1 million. Get 1,000 people, and you’ve got $2 million. Find one of those cavernous hotel ballrooms that can accommodate 2,000 people, and you’ve got $4 million. Do that for about a month and you’ve funded your campaign.

Of course, no other candidate can do what Bush does. The president is far ahead of the world in making the reformed system work for him.

So are the good-government types happy? Not at all.

“It’s the most cold-blooded and efficient way of raising money in the history of politics,” Charles Lewis, head of the Center for Public Integrity, says in Canada’s National Post. “These aren’t your average Americans. They’re the most well-heeled interests, with vested interests in government.”

Bob Herbert of the New York Times calls Bush’s fundraising dinners “events at which the fat cats throw millions of dollars at the president to reinforce their already impenetrable ring of influence around the national government.”

That’s the kind of rhetoric that was used when rich people and corporations gave seven-figure soft-money donations. Now, with contributors limited to $2,000, all of it hard money, the critics are still using the fat cat argument.

But by any standard of measurement, they’re simply wrong. George W. Bush’s GOP is the party of the little guy.

A new study by the Center for Responsive Politics found that in the last election cycle, people who gave less than $200 to politicians or parties gave 64 percent of their money to Republicans. Just 35 percent went to Democrats. On the other hand, the Center found that people who gave $1 million or more gave 92 percent to Democrats — and a whopping eight percent to Republicans.

Which would you call the party of fat cats?

It seems the real problem reformers have with George W. Bush is that he is more successful than they thought possible. The president aims to collect somewhere between $170 million and $200 million for the campaign leading up to next year’s GOP convention, and some reformers believe that’s just too much.

“They are raising far more funds than they possibly need for the 2004 election, and far more than they can wisely spend,” perennial reformer Fred Wertheimer told the Los Angeles Times. Wertheimer did not specify what a “wise” expenditure level would be.

(In a separate statement, Wertheimer also said the president is “pursuing a path of pure excess in his quest for political money, just as his predecessor Bill Clinton did.” Perhaps there’s room to criticize Bush, but until his administration’s equivalents to John Huang, Charlie Trie, and Johnny Chung come out of the woodwork, the critics should stay away from the Clinton comparisons.)

Bush’s success at raising money reflects a larger disparity between the parties. According to the website Political Moneyline, the Democratic National Committee, together with its Senate and House committees, raised $5,351,459 in May. The Republican National Committee and its congressional committees pulled in $21,155,366 in the same period. At the end of May, the DNC had $4,201,910 cash on hand. The RNC had $21,039,452.

The enormous gap between Republicans and Democrats, both at the presidential and the congressional levels, has driven some analysts over the edge. Paul Krugman of the New York Times worries that the United States is heading toward one-party rule.

Others are routinely overstating the strength of the Bush campaign. Search the Nexis database for “Bush” and “juggernaut” and you’ll find dozens of recent examples of reporters using the J-word to describe the president’s reelection effort. “President Bush’s fund-raising juggernaut is driven by a small army of well-connected supporters,” CNN reported. “Political pundits said the Bush buck-raking juggernaut could double the $101 million it raised for the 2000 presidential election,” wrote the New York Daily News. And so on.

Even the normally calm Dan Balz of the Washington Post recently wrote that “behind the scenes” at the Bush campaign, “under the direction of White House senior adviser Karl Rove, preparations are underway for a comprehensive assault on the electorate.” The planned “assault,” Balz wrote, includes such actions as adding a prescription-drug benefit to Medicare.

Who knew Karl Rove could be so vicious? And with so much money to spend!

Such hyperventilating will likely continue as small donors keep showering Republican candidates and committees with contributions. It’s a state of affairs — a politically healthy state of affairs — the reformers helped create. They should be happy.


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