Bellybutton Campaigning

How campaign reform is ruining one of the nation’s hottest House races.

When a conference-room marathon devolved into a quibble over rules of deliberation, a colleague whispered to me, “We are now having a meeting about meetings.” In the 8th District of Maryland, we are now having a campaign about campaigning. It’s a snooze and, quite possibly, a bad omen.

Incumbent Rep. Connie Morella, a liberal Republican trying to hold on to her seat in a redrawn, heavily Democratic district, wants Democrat Chris Van Hollen Jr. to renounce independent ads backing him. Such soft-money ads are prohibited by the new campaign-finance law, but that doesn’t take effect until after the election. Morella deems Van Hollen unsporting for flouting this not-yet-binding standard. “He wants to play by the old rules,” she sniffs in a radio ad.

For his part, Van Hollen calls on Morella to raise no more than 20 percent of her campaign funds from PACs. He also wants her to pledge that she won’t air attack ads—such as, well, ads pointing out Van Hollen’s reliance on soft money. “The most important thing to the voters,” he told the Washington Post, “is that candidates run a positive campaign based on issues they care about, and that’s what we’re going to do and that’s what we’re asking her to do.”

Each side, of course, coyly advocates a neutral-sounding rule that would make its own victory more likely. Van Hollen needs interest groups and other outside spenders; Morella needs PACs; and whoever feels more vulnerable—at the moment, Morella—needs negative ads.

Squabbles over the rules of campaigning usually are evanescent, as in the quadrennial ones about format and timing of presidential debates. This time, though, the metacampaign just keeps coming, overshadowing discussions of issues and character. No time for substance; we’re stuck on procedure.

Why? In part, geography is destiny. Bordering the District of Columbia, the 8th District houses thousands of federal workers and goo-goos whose pulses quicken over procedural arcana.

And the candidates have given these voters something new. We’ve all seen Enforcers, who accuse opponents of violating campaign laws, and Reformers, who want to toughen campaign laws. Morella and Van Hollen have fashioned a hybrid: Reformer-Enforcers carp about breaches of future or hypothetical laws. J’accuse, they shout, citing not the U.S. Code, but Common Cause’s wish list.

Advocates promise that thoroughgoing campaign reform would usher in a new Athens. All issues, all the time; all Jim Lehrer, no Bill O’Reilly. But here’s the irony: Until Congress writes comprehensive new laws and the Supreme Court upholds them—both long shots—running against an opponent’s campaign practices takes us further away from that deliberative utopia. Campaigns about campaigning are not campaigns about issues. By prattling about how the opponent’s money and ads are muffling the issues and distorting the process, a candidate muffles the issues and distorts the process.

For the airless campaign in Maryland’s 8th District, don’t blame the imperfect rules. Blame the folks who are trying to enforce perfect rules.