Armageddon for the GOP? Hardly.
From the February 20, 2002 Wall Street Journal: The Shays-Meehan campaign finance reform bill might even wind up helping Republicans.
11:01 PM, Feb 21, 2002 • By FRED BARNES
The Congressional Black Caucus insisted on an amendment that permits members of Congress to raise money for nonpartisan groups, such as the NAACP. Both Republicans and Democrats are sure to exploit this. Instead of raising money for their parties, they'll now raise it for nominally independent groups allied with them on issues. In turn, these groups will finance TV issue ads that none-too-subtly boost GOP or Democratic candidates.
Another loophole lets individuals give $10,000 in soft money to state parties--all 50 of them, if the donor wishes--and to local parties, too. To exploit this, the national parties merely need to direct high-dollar donors to states where their candidates need help. No doubt they'll do this. And because of the two loopholes, the amount of soft money raised in 2003, the first year Shays-Meehan would go into effect, may decline little or not at all.
In an odd way, the legislation also helps Republicans on issue ads. In the 2000 presidential race, Democrats had a distinct edge in this area. The NAACP, Sierra Club, and abortion rights groups ran ads against George W. Bush, but there were few issue ads attacking Al Gore. With Shays-Meehan in effect, Republicans will not only raise soft money for conservative or other sympathetic groups, they'll do this with the expectation those groups will back them at election time with issue ads. As it stands, the legislation says only political action committees, which must register with the federal government and accept spending limits, can air issue ads in the final 60 days of a campaign. But it's unlikely the courts will accept such an affront to the First Amendment. The best guess is that issue ads will be legal and will flourish.
There's a final question about campaign finance reform. Why would Democrats support a measure that may hurt them politically and Republicans oppose a bill that may help? Ideology and the press play a role here. Democrats--the liberals anyway--believe a Washington free of the influence of corporations would be fertile ground for liberal governance. They think, John Podhoretz wrote in the New York Post, "the reason their wonderful ideas for controlling and managing America do not become law is solely due to rich people and corporations . . . get the money out and wonderful new regulations will flow." When the New York Times and Washington Post editoralize along these lines, they salute.
Republicans don't. Their animus against campaign finance reform stems from their view of government. Whatever can be done free of government control--elections, say--should be left in the hands of civil society or the private sector. What the media thinks leaves them cold. Shays-Meehan won't vindicate either. It won't change the campaign equation that much, but whatever impact it has should leave Republicans pleasantly surprised.
Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.