Frame Game

The Money Jungle

Opening this week’s Senate debate on campaign-finance reform, Sen. John McCain proposed to protect “the public interest” against the “richest organized interests” that gain “special access to power” through “six and seven figure donations to political parties.” By speaking of “the people,” “the public interest,” and “our country,” McCain presented his bill, co-authored with Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., as a transcendent reform that “seeks no special advantage for one party or another.” But this illusion of neutrality, and the political momentum that flows from it, can’t last. McCain’s argument assumes that senators will analyze the political world as he does: money against people, special interests against citizens, powerful incumbents against underdog outsiders. There are other ways, however, of classifying and juxtaposing the various beasts of the political jungle. By illuminating these other conflicts and the ways in which McCain’s reforms might impair one side or the other, his opponents are confounding his logic and his bill.

1. Democrats vs. Republicans. This is the dichotomy traditionally emphasized by Republicans to dissuade their colleagues from supporting McCain-Feingold. The message to each Republican senator is: Don’t think of yourself as a powerful incumbent intimidating an array of poorly funded challengers. Think of yourself as a Republican facing an array of unions and other powerful liberal interest groups. You need “soft money”—unlimited contributions to your political party—to defend yourself. If McCain takes away that money, leaving you with only “hard money” contributions to your campaign, which are capped at $1,000 each, the unions will overpower you.

As Democrats have increased their share of soft money, and as McCain has adjusted his bill to curb the power of unions (by prohibiting them—along with corporations—from running ads against specific candidates within 60 days of an election), this argument has lost some of its force among Republicans. But for the same reason, it has gained force among Democrats—provoking, most recently, the defection of Sen. John Breaux, D-La. Many other Democrats are prepared to jump ship if conservatives attach a “paycheck protection” amendment, which would require a union to get each member’s permission before spending his union dues on political activity. Without that amendment, however, conservatives won’t climb aboard. The bottom line is that nothing McCain can do will convince senators on both sides that the bill treats them equally. With the Senate split evenly between the two parties, it doesn’t matter which party feels threatened. If McCain’s opponents can frame the consequences in partisan terms, the bill will die.

2. Your interest groups vs. mine. McCain imposes disclosure requirements on interest groups that run ads against candidates close to an election. He portrays these groups as constitutionally protected but insidious. In his worldview, citizens are on one side, and special interests are on the other. McCain’s chief antagonist, Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., sees it differently. “My favorite definition of ‘special interest’ is a group [that’s] against what I am trying to do,” McConnell quipped during Monday’s debate. McConnell offers a kinder term for organizations whose missions he favors: “citizens’ groups.” If McConnell can get you to think of the Sierra Club or the National Rifle Association as representatives of your beliefs, rather than as “special interests,” he can cool your enthusiasm for regulating them. This maneuver essentially does to McCain’s interest-group disclosure provision what the Democrat-Republican dichotomy does to McCain’s soft-money ban. It fractures his support by framing the debate in partisan terms.

To reassure the GOP that Democrats have as much to lose from a soft-money ban as Republicans do, McCain routinely cites Denise Rich, the Buddhist temple, and “no controlling legal authority” as illustrations of fund raising run amok. Conversely, to reassure Democrats, McCain never criticizes the AFL-CIO without simultaneously criticizing corporations or anti-union interest groups such as the National Right to Work Committee. To persuade President Bush that disclosure requirements on interest group ads might not be a bad idea, McCain brings up last year’s NAACP ads that tried to link Bush to the racist murder of a black man. But partisan insecurity renders McCain’s efforts at reassurance difficult. Democrats fret that pro-business interest groups will be able to run election ads while unions won’t. Republicans fret that if both parties give up soft money and interest-group ads, the “liberal media” will dominate the airwaves.

3. Incumbents vs. parties vs. interest groups. McCain describes an “iron triangle” of interest groups, soft money to parties, and legislators who do take the money and serve the interest groups. His critics confound this metaphor by teasing out conflicts among the three institutions. Take the relationship between incumbents and parties. Advocates of McCain-Feingold depict parties as buttresses for incumbents or as conduits for funding them. Ban soft money, and the party’s role as buttress or conduit dissolves. But McConnell and Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., posit a different political ecology: Parties, which can consolidate the resources necessary to elect challengers, are incumbents’ only natural predators. Take away soft money, cripple the parties, and you’ll render incumbents invulnerable. McCain rebuts this critique by arguing that parties have lost power as soft money has increased. But there’s enough logic in the critique to raise doubts that campaign-finance restrictions aimed at parties will leave incumbents more vulnerable than they are today.

The same logic applies to the other two sides of the triangle. Some senators think parties represent “the people” against interest groups that represent “money.” Ban soft money, and you’ll deprive parties of the ability to nurture “grassroots participation,” “registration drives,” “get-out-the-vote,” and other broad-based activities that protect the country’s civic health against fractious, single-issue interest groups. Others think these groups offer citizens a vehicle for holding incumbents accountable. Restrict the ability of “citizens’ groups” to mount issue-ad campaigns, and powerful politicians will run amok.

4. Open vs. secret. McCain proposes to restrict soft-money party donations, whose disclosure is already required, and to require disclosure of donations to interest group issue-ad campaigns, which presently can be kept secret. His opponents turn the latter issue against the former. While insisting that regulation of interest-group ads is unconstitutional, they agree that these ads are troubling because nobody knows who’s paying for them. But for that reason, they argue, restrictions on soft money would worsen the situation by deflecting the flow of money from open channels (parties) to secret channels (interest groups). Having framed the issue in terms of openness, they go on to point out that hard-money donations are more transparent than soft-money donations—since the donor and ultimate recipient are explicitly connected—and therefore the cap on hard money should be raised, in order to draw money back into the most visible channel. This argument, phrased in terms of “accountability,” mirrors the argument for legalizing drugs, though most of the senators who make it see no connection.

5. Rich vs. poor. Partisanship is only one way of stirring up fears about the distributional effects of a ban on soft money. Another way is to remind each senator that she might soon find herself pitted against a wealthy challenger willing to spend his fortune to unseat her. In that scenario, fund-raising restrictions look more like a threat to the underdog, since the tycoon can buy all the ads he wants without raising a cent. Like the complaints about partisanship, interest groups, and secrecy, this argument exploits the practical and constitutional inability of reformers to seal every channel through which money can flow into politics. Somebody’s money will get through. You might find yourself under assault from that somebody. To protect yourself, you need the freedom to raise money of your own. (This argument mirrors the argument against gun control, though many of the senators who make it see no connection.) The rich-candidate version of this critique is particularly cogent, because self-financing is the most clearly constitutionally protected loophole in campaign-finance law. That’s a major reason why a relaxation of hard-money caps for candidates who run against tycoons—framed as the “equalizer amendment”—was the first amendment added to McCain-Feingold during this week’s debate.

6. Federal vs. state. McCain and Feingold worry that if donors are forbidden to give soft money to national parties but are allowed to give it to state parties, this loophole will gut the ban. Accordingly, Feingold explained during the debate that under their bill, “State parties that are permitted under State law to accept these unregulated contributions would be prohibited from spending them on activities relating to Federal elections.” But this solution gives critics a new angle of attack. “It is not the place of the federal government to federalize state election laws,” Hagel argued on Face the Nation. “Each state should have that ability, certainly, to do that on their own.” By framing their resistance to federal control in terms of state sovereignty rather than individual freedom, opponents of McCain-Feingold are able to apply their usual anti-government rhetoric to campaign-finance reform without explicitly having to defend the moguls who write the checks.

7. Court-approved restrictions vs. voided restrictions. Opponents of McCain-Feingold demand a “non-severability” clause stipulating that if courts strike down any part of the legislation, the rest becomes inoperative. McCain, recognizing the high probability that courts will void at least one provision of the bill—the “equalizer amendment” is an obvious candidate—argues strenuously against such a stipulation. If you view politics the way McCain does—big money is the enemy, and McCain-Feingold limits big money—it follows logically that some of McCain-Feingold is better than none.

But if instead you view the political jungle in terms of the balance of power—liberals vs. conservatives, parties vs. interest groups, incumbents vs. self-financing tycoons—it’s logical to wonder whether, if half of McCain-Feingold is struck down and the other half survives, the system will end up worse than it is now. What if millionaires can’t bankroll parties but can fund their own issue ads without disclosure? What if unions can fund issue ads, but corporations can’t? Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good, says McCain. “The supporters of this legislation have had differences about what constitutes the ideal reform,” he conceded in his opening speech. “But we have subordinated those differences to the common good, in the hope that we might enact those basic reforms that Members of both parties could agree on.” Half a loaf is better than none. As long as you’re sure that what you’re holding is a loaf, and not a grenade.