Soft Money Is Good: ‘Hard-Earned American Dollars That Big Brother Has Yet to Find a Way to Control’
By Betsy DeVos
Roll Call September 6, 1997
It seems that all of official Washington is now consumed by the drive toward campaign reform. The do-gooders are out en masse with a variety of proposals, ranging from the clearly unconstitutional, to the patently absurd, to the very dangerous.
In this era of cynicism and mistrust of all things political, it has become fashionable to decry the system and call for removing all money from politics, particularly this really bad stuff called “soft money.”
What is soft money? The public, being too preoccupied with the ebb and flow of the important things in their lives, doesn’t have any idea what it is. It sounds bad, shadowy, hard to pin down, untraceable, even sinister.
In reality, soft money given to political parties is nothing more than money that is not yet regulated by the federal government. And contrary to what you hear, it is all publicly reported for everyone to see. It is hard-earned American dollars that Big Brother has yet to find a way to control. That is all it is, nothing more.
Much of this money is used in gubernatorial races and state legislative campaigns, where the feds have yet to take over. Some is spent on television ads promoting the ideals of both the Republican and Democratic parties, and some is used in efforts to increase voter turnout.
I know a little something about soft money, as my family is the largest single contributor of soft money to the national Republican party. Occasionally a wayward reporter will try to make the charge that we are giving this money to get something in return, or that we must be purchasing influence in some way.
In fact, shortly after this summer’s historic budget agreement, some on the left began shopping a rumor that President Clinton was planning to line-item veto a provision that, they hypothesized, had been somehow sneaked into the agreement to benefit my family’s company, the Amway Corporation.
For a moment, the Democrats got very excited, believing they had an opportunity to claim that we bought access. It was all hogwash, and upon being confronted with the facts, they had to scrap their plan.
I have decided, however, to stop taking offense at the suggestion that we are buying influence. Now I simply concede the point. They are right. We do expect some things in return.
We expect to foster a conservative governing philosophy consisting of limited government and respect for traditional American virtues. We expect a return on our investment; we expect a good and honest government. Furthermore, we expect the Republican party to use the money to promote these policies, and yes, to win elections.
People like us must surely be stopped.
But “everyone knows there is too much money in politics.” I will admit that refrain certainly does sound pleasing to the ear. A closer look shows, however, that it does not match up with reality. The truth is that we know more about the cheeseburgers we eat than the leaders we elect. McDonald’s spent more on television advertising last year than did all the candidates for the House of Representatives combined.
As Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky) likes to say, when you combine all the political spending from the 1995-96 election cycle, it comes to about the same amount that the cosmetics industry spent promoting its products.
So what is more important? Fully understanding the views, ideas, and beliefs of the people who will chart the future of our country? Or getting the value meal that is on sale?
There is a much greater and more fundamental underlying problem with most of the reform proposals currently being considered. They are all, in varying degrees, attempts to pass laws in order to limit or reduce campaign spending, meaning they are attempts to limit speech.
The idea that the government has the right or the ability to limit how much people speak in the American political process ought to frighten people. In politics, money is speech. You don’t have free speech without it.
If you limit or take away citizens’ and candidates’ rights to promote their views, whether they choose to express them by yelling on the street corner, putting up yard signs, handing out literature, or buying air time for television ads, you have taken away their free speech.
Of course, to really be heard in our system, you have to run television ads, and this requires some serious cash. There is a name for political candidates who can’t raise enough money to run television ads – losers.
Realizing this, the labor unions spent at least $100 million on television ads in 1996 trying to defeat the Republican Congress. Did I like this? No. Their ads were, in my opinion, misleading, and in some cases, even dishonest. Yet I will continue to defend their right to air them.
Many of the current “reform” proposals advocate strictly curbing the ability of independent citizen groups to talk to the voters via advertising. This amounts to nothing less than politicians trying to gag our ability to comment on their performance.
Which brings us to the most troubling and inexplicable aspect of this whole debate – the role of the mainstream media. A quick sampling of editorials from the major dailies around the country reveals overwhelming support for campaign finance reform that includes spending limits on virtually everyone. The very people who are always quick to point out that even the most indecent of materials deserve protection under the First Amendment are failing to defend the fundamental right of the freedom of political speech.
Otherwise logical people are willing to accept nearly anything, as long as it is deemed to be within the rubric of “campaign finance reform.” The original McCain-Feingold bill, in addition to being an assault on free speech, would certainly have resulted in voters being less informed as they entered the voting booths on Election Day. Contribution limits and spending limits will always result in fewer communications with the voters, which will always result in voters knowing less about the positions and beliefs of the candidates, which will always result in poor voter turnout.
Realizing that the courts frown on spending limits, the tactic generally used to bait candidates into accepting “voluntary” spending limits is some form of public financing. This is the liberal solution for everything – governmentize it, and have the taxpayer pay for it.
This is one idea that I don’t worry too much about. No matter how much the left howls for campaign finance reform, I have yet to see any appetite among the voters for paying more taxes so that politicians can have easier lives.
What would life be like in a post-campaign finance reform world? If the crowd succeeds in enacting spending limits on candidates and gagging the ability of citizen groups to speak out, then voters won’t get much information directly from candidates or their allies. Campaigns will be prohibited by law from speaking out beyond their federally assigned limits, and citizen groups will have been silenced. Where will people find information on the merits and beliefs of the candidates?
Where will they be able to go to develop an informed opinion on how to vote?
I can think of only one institution that would be left unregulated and able to spend any amount of money it pleases – the press. The news media increasingly would become the controllers of the message, and the only way that candidates could get their message out to voters would be to be featured in television, radio, and newspaper coverage.
It is for this reason that thinking Republicans look so quizzically at those few GOPers who favor the McCain-Feingold approach to campaign reform.
For those who support attacks on free speech, such as those in the many versions of the McCain-Feingold bill, perhaps they should follow this thinking through to its logical conclusion. They must then be willing to place limits on the number of news stories the media can run, the number of editorials they can print, the number of newspapers they can sell, and the number of news shows they can air.
If we are going to restrict free speech, we need to do it for everybody.
Betsy DeVos, whose family has contributed some $2.5 million in soft money, is the chairwoman of the Michigan Republican party.
LOAD-DATE: October 6, 1997
Copyright © 1997 Roll Call, Inc.
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