Ballot Box

Inside the Bradley-McCain Handshake

A McCain-Bradley button At their joint appearance in Claremont, N.H., today, Bill Bradley and John McCain seemed to be saying much the same thing about campaign finance reform. Both see the present system as murderous to democracy. McCain said at the event what he has often said before: that reform is required in order to “give the government of this country back to its citizens.” Bradley, using somewhat stronger language, described big money a “plague,” an acid “eating away at the core of our democracy” and as “a great stone wall that comes between the people and their representatives.” As the two men also explained in a Nightline forum taped before their “handshake,” they both support an outright ban on soft money–the huge, unregulated contributions funneled into the general election by way of the political parties.

But Bradley and McCain don’t fully agree about campaign finance reform. Some of their differences are subtle ones grounded in their respective political orientations. For instance, Bradley the Democrat thinks that special-interest money works primarily to prevent the government from passing useful new laws, like health-care reform and regulation of handguns. McCain the Republican thinks that special-interest money causes the government to waste money on unnecessary programs and prevents it from cutting ones it should get rid of.

Other distinctions visible today point up temperamental differences between the two men. McCain, who is more of a risk-taker, feels so strongly about soft money that he has promised not to accept it should he become the nominee no matter what his Democratic rival does. Bradley, more cautious by nature, has declined to take a pledge of unilateral disarmament. McCain is also more categorical about his moral indictment, saying at the press conference following today’s event that special-interest money corrupts everyone in politics, himself included. Money, he said, buys access, and “access is influence.” Bradley, by contrast, said no decision he had ever made was influenced by money, merely that he resented the suspicion–the appearance of impropriety–that is unavoidable under the present system.

But when it comes to what sort of reform is necessary, Bradley and McCain actually have big disagreements that they didn’t illuminate today. Basically it comes down to this: Bradley’s idea of campaign finance reform is comprehensive. He wants to eliminate the role of private money from politics once and for all. McCain’s approach, on the other hand, is incremental. He will be satisfied with reducing the role and power of special-interest money in Washington.

Bradley believes that the entire system of financing campaigns needs to be overhauled. To do this, he thinks, will require not only banning soft money and providing free TV air time to candidates, but also full public financing of congressional elections and a constitutional amendment to overturn Buckley vs. Valeo, the 1976 Supreme Court decision that defines spending as speech. In Claremont, Bradley employed the metaphor he also uses in his book: “Money in politics is similar to the ants in your kitchen,” he writes. “Just when you think you’ve got them blocked, they find another way to get in. Only hermetically sealing the kitchen off will work.” We need to amend the Constitution and provide full public financing, he writes, because “anything less means that democracy can still be corrupted.”

McCain agrees with Bradley about how harmful special-interest money is. But his own solution is much more modest. McCain doesn’t think it will be possible to eliminate the influence of private money from politics, or that doing so would even be desirable. He wants to stamp out the most pernicious abuses–the enormous contributions by corporations, labor unions, and wealthy individuals. And he hopes to level the playing field for challengers and incumbents by providing free airtime for candidates. But McCain does not favor public financing for congressional campaigns and doesn’t think it’s necessary to amend the Constitution to get meaningful reform.

I’d give a lot of credit to both McCain and Bradley for trying to explain this complex problem and make it into a major issue in the campaign. But I think that McCain’s less ambitious, piecemeal approach makes much more sense than Bradley’s comprehensive one. Bradley’s desire to solve the problem once and for all is understandable, but his approach is dangerous. Amending the Constitution should always be a last resort. And in this case, the alternatives haven’t been exhausted. It’s not clear that Buckley v. Valeo prevents genuine reform–or that even if it does, the corruption of the current system is severe enough to warrant tinkering with the Bill of Rights. And in practical terms, what’s the point of even discussing a constitutional amendment–which requires a two-thirds vote in the Senate as well as ratification by the states–if you don’t have a majority to pass a simple bill?

Bradley’s sweeping proposals also cut against the nature and history of the problem. Political reform in this country has never taken the form of systemic reengineering. Instead, it has always been a frustrating but productive process, one in which rising expectations and public outrage lead to ameliorative legislation and higher ethical standards. Bradley ought to understand this, not only because he’s well-versed in the history of political reform–there’s a chapter on the subject in his book–but because the challenge of campaign finance reform is so similar to that of tax reform, which was his own greatest legislative accomplishment as a Senator. Passed in 1986, tax reform was undone over the course of the following decade. The post-Watergate campaign finance reforms were unmade in a very similar way–smart lawyers and lobbyists opened loopholes. The loopholes expanded, and eventually got to the point where a fresh set of reforms was needed. Just like campaign finance today.