July 8, 2008

Who's the hypocrite when it comes to campaign finance?

John McCain and many in the press have recently been doing the mock outrage thing about Barack Obama deciding against going the publicly financed campaign route, suggesting that makes him hypocritical. (Despite the fact that being able to raise most of his money from small donors without government contributions would seem to achieve the goal of removing big money influence, but that requires a moments thought... too much to ask.)

But while the fossil is out casting Obama as a hypocrite, he's busily figuring out ways to go up to and perhaps over the line, potentially violating the very laws he enacted to prevent corruption, in finding new and dubious ways to channel unlimited big buck donations into the McCain campaign.

While McCain is crying crocodile tears, his minions are busy mopping up big dough from big money influences. The story will continue to be that Obama has a huge money advantage, but you don't know the rest of the story.

This piece from a Newsweek.com blog 'splains it. McCain '08, the say anything express.
Last week, we wrote that despite the vast disparity between John McCain's and Barack Obama's overall fundraising total this cycle--$120 million to $287 million at last count--the Republican stands a surprisingly good chance of keeping up with his rival in the general election. One reason was the RNC. (Republican National Committee)

When you combine McCain's individual war chest with his party's bankroll, it turns out the Republican nominee has about $90 million currently burning a hole in his pocket, while Obama and the DNC weigh in at a relatively paltry $47 million, or half as much. And even though McCain has agreed to an $84.1 spending limit by accepting public funds--a decision he likes to portray as a principled stand against the corrupting influence of money on politics--at least double that sum will be dropped on his behalf before Election Day thanks to loopholes in the law that allow outside groups to effectively skirt such limits with largely unregulated "soft money" contributions.

First up: the RNC. On Sunday, OnMessage Inc., a Virginia-based company with Republican ties, rolled out a series of pro-McCain, anti-Obama television ads in the battleground states of Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. The energy-centric campaign--a $3 million RNC buy set to air over 10 days--is a perfect example of how, when it comes to spending, the distinction between McCain and the RNC is pretty much irrelevant. While McCain is "pushing his own party to face climate change," says the ad's announcer, "Barack Obama... just says no to lower gas taxes... no to nuclear... and no to more production." This is exactly the same (misleading) message McCain's campaign delivered in a spot released online late last month. But because McCain "had nothing do with the [new] ads," and the RNC merely funded the spots--it apparently didn't consult on content--they're subject to neither the candidate's $84.1 million spending limit nor the $20 million cap on what the party can spend in coordination with the campaign. In other words, the RNC can invest unlimited sums of money in commercials like this.

Given that GOP donors can each contribute $28,500 to the national party--or about $25,000 more than Dems can give directly to Obama--expect to see plenty more On Message-style spots before Election Day. After all, it's not like they're going to sound any different from the ads McCain would air if he could afford to.

Meanwhile, McCain campaign is stepping around federal spending limits by funneling cash through the state and national party machinery--and potentially benefiting from donations to a non-RNC organization that could boost his chances in key states.

As the Wall Street Journal reported last Thursday, the Republican Governors' Association, a GOP group unrestrained by federal spending limits because it's designed to elect governors, is now "marketing itself as a home for contributions of unlimited size to help Sen. McCain." "While using [such] a fund... to boost a national candidacy would seem to cross legal restrictions against federal electioneering," as the New York Times wrote this morning,* so far the benefits for McCain seem to outweigh the risks.

Currently, Team McCain is soliciting checks of up to $70,100 from each donor--$28,500 for the RNC, $40,000 for a quartet of state parties and $2,300 for the candidate himself. But if the Governors' Association actually works on a local level to boost McCain's bid,* even that ceiling on individual contributions--which is already high enough to ensure that the senator's publicly-financed campaign will raise about half of its money from private sources--would be shattered.

Finally, the well-funded but completely unregulated outside groups known as 527s are beginning to shell out on McCain's behalf. The operatives who bankrolled the Swift Boat attack ads against Sen. John Kerry four years ago are investing in the governors’ kitty. The National Rifle Association plans to spend about $40 million on this year’s presidential campaign, with $15 million of that devoted to portraying Obama as a threat to voters' Second Amendment rights. And just this morning the Christian Defense Coalition launched a new campaign called "Barack Obama: The Abortion President" designed to blunt Obama's attempts to make inroads with evangelicals. All of which boost McCain--without depleting his war chest.

The irony here, of course, is that it was McCain who co-sponsored the 2002 law meant to curtail the influence of wealth on presidential politics by limiting direct donations to the campaigns. Now he's the one's doing everything imaginable to circumvent the very caps he fought to create. We don't begrudge the senator his acrobatics. With Obama anticipated to raise between $200 and $300 million for the general election--much of it from his network of 1.5 (mostly small-sum) donors--it's the only way the Arizonan can stay competitive. But let's hope whoever's elected in November figures out a better way of keeping cold, hard cash from dominating our politics. That way we won't have to deal with these shenanigans again in 2012.

Making this story even more complex is the fact that Bush has left several positions on the Federal Campaign Commission unfilled. What this means is that it's unable to function. So there's no one there to investigate, sanction, or punish McCain for violating the very laws he wrote. Neat trick, eh?


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