National Journal | March 29, 1997
AN AMERICAN political party today can collect and spend as much money as it likes in order to promote its candidates--provided that it does not suggest actually voting for them. James Madison, were he alive, might wonder what earthly purpose this rule serves. A good question. Unfortunately, the current campaign finance regime is a labyrinth of peculiar rules, understandable only to lawyers, and sensible not even to them.
America now has an intricate system of limits on campaign funding. Since the limits were established in 1974, political spending has risen by 150 per cent, after inflation. Instead of favoring small contributors and just-folks politicians, as post- Watergate reformers intended originally, the regime favors plutocrats (who can finance their own campaigns), machine politicians (with fund-raising factories) and guerrilla candidates (who need little money). Instead of lightening the burdens of fund raising, the rules have turned politicians into full-time money-grubbers.
Probably no American public policy is a more comprehensive failure than campaign finance law. Rarely has so elaborate a policy accomplished so little. No one, not anyone, would claim that in 1996 campaigns were cheaper, cleaner, fairer or more wholesome than in, say, 1966. In 1996, writes CNN political correspondent Brooks Jackson in Larry J. Sabato's new anthology, Toward the Millennium: The Elections of 1996, ''the role of money and the influence of an elite class of affluent contributors was stronger than ever.'' Worse, as the rules have grown more Levitical, they have drifted further from any mooring to common sense. At the end of the day, the only beneficiaries have been lawyers.
A failure so consummate bespeaks flaws in the policy's premises, not just its execution. Today's system is founded on a naive faith in rules, an undiscriminating disgust for money and a belief that political spending can be meaningfully distinguished from political expression. All of those premises are unsupportable, and doom any system built upon them. A successful regime, therefore, must not be rule-bound, must accept the reality of private money in politics and must welcome rather than repress political speech--all while offering a useful alternative to money politics. No small task but, as this article will argue, by no means an impossible one.
Specifically, consider a regime built of three basic elements. First: full public financing for federal candidates who agree not to take or seek private money. Second: full, rapid and strictly enforced disclosure of private spending in politics. Third, and at least as important as Nos. 1 and 2: no other rules. Apart from voluntary public financing and full disclosure, get rid of all controls on private political giving. Jettison the 1970s system.
This is a radical plan on several dimensions. It offends liberals by sweeping away the mare's nest of rules that now govern campaign finance. It offends conservatives by using tax money to subsidize candidates. Perhaps most significant, by combining public financing with private deregulation it radically simplifies, and clarifies, the goals of campaign finance law. It abandons once and for all the quixotic goal of using rules to clean up politics. Instead, it makes the acceptance of special- interest money an issue in every campaign. The rest, it leaves up to the voters.
To justify itself, such a proposal needs to establish, at a minimum, that it is better than the alternatives. That is not as difficult as one might wish.
RULES OF THE GAME
SINCE the 1974 reforms, congressional campaign spending has roughly tripled (after inflation), contributions by political action committees (PACs) have doubled in real terms and House incumbents' financial advantage over challengers has almost tripled. The chart on page 604 shows over-all political spending (in today's dollars) since 1952, as estimated by Herbert E. Alexander, a University of Southern California political scientist. If wringing money out of politics was the goal, the record speaks for itself.
As it has evolved, the system is dauntingly complex, so that no summary can do it justice. A Federal Election Commission was established to regulate campaigns. Congress tried to cap politicians' campaign spending, but the Supreme Court demurred on 1st Amendment grounds. So contributions to candidates are capped but spending by candidates is not (the Court's rationale being that large donations to candidates pose a clear risk of corruption, whereas candidates' own spending does not). PACs are allowed to raise money from individuals and donate it to campaigns, but they may give no more than $5,000 to any one candidate in a primary and $5,000 for a general election. Individuals may give any one candidate no more than $1,000. Donors can give no more than $25,000 to all federal politicians during an election cycle, of which not more than $5,000 can go to state political parties and not more than $20,000 to national parties. Is that clear?
All of those limits are arbitrary and have been badly eroded by inflation, but that has been the least of the system's troubles. Special interests soon learned to circumvent the rules by, among other things, ''bundling'' together $ 1,000 checks. Using this paper-clip trick, companies and firms (or, if you insist on being technical about it, their executives) routinely make five-figure donations to individual candidates. Even before the latest round of complaints, it was doubtful that the 1970s system ever accomplished anything, with one exception: Parties and candidates were required to tell the public who was bankrolling them. Most people would agree that this rule has been useful.
''The one shining star, the only one, is disclosure,'' says Ellen S. Miller, the head of Public Campaign, a reform- minded public-interest group. Other than that, ''it's flawed from the get-go.''
In the last two presidential cycles, the system has collapsed altogether under the weight of ''soft money,'' ''independent expenditures'' and ''issue ads.'' All are different versions of the same thing: political spending that is nominally outside of candidates' control. Inevitably, the political parties and lobbies discovered that what they were forbidden to give directly to campaigns they could spend indirectly: on ''party- building'' activities (soft money), on the candidates' behalf but without their participation (independent expenditures), on television blitzes that stop just short of urging an actual vote for an actual human being (issue advocacy).
In 1995-96, the major parties raised $263 million in soft money, three times more than in 1992, and most of it found its way into campaigns. Soft money was what President Clinton was pursuing when he offered White House coffees and bedrooms as blandishments. Meanwhile, interest groups dumped millions of their own dollars into the system, the best-known example being the AFL-CIO's $35 million campaign to ''educate'' the public about congressional Republicans.
So fix it, say traditionalist reformers. More rules, more limits, more enforcement. But the 1970s system is irreparable, first and foremost because of Brown's Law (after the late Sid Brown, a wise Senate staff member): Tell a politician he can't do what he must do, and he'll always find a way to do it. Politicians need money to run for office, and one way or another, they will get it. Groups need to influence the government, and one way or another, they will spend money to do so. More important, both of those functions are essential to democracy. Thus legalistic efforts to stem the flow of money have had mainly perverse effects.
GAMING THE RULES
LIMITS on contributions looked good on paper. But in practice, they forced politicians to scramble all the harder to raise many small donations. Raising the $ 600,000 that an incumbent spends for a medium-sized House campaign means tapping a minimum of 120 PACs or 600 individuals every two years, a grindingly tedious process. Naturally, politicians started chasing uncapped money, meaning ''indirect'' contributions. Hard limits were what gave soft money its allure.
Actually, it's not clear that soft money, which flows to parties, is altogether a bad thing, if the real-world alternatives are donations given directly to candidates (who can more easily dispense legislative favors than can parties) or independent spending by special interests (which is wholly unaccountable). But for argument's sake, let's say that Congress banned or sharply restricted soft-money contributions, as a number of leading proposals envision. Who, then, would finance the parties? Unclear. If large soft-money donations were banned, the parties might wilt as interest groups circumvented them. And where would the special interests take their money? Probably into ad campaigns of their own. Politicians already complain that they are becoming pawns in their own races because their fund raising is limited while that of outside interests is not. Banning soft money could remove campaigns further from the candidates' and parties' control.
Speaking on NBC's Meet the Press, former Democratic Sen. Bill Bradley recently said, ''Money in politics is a little bit like ants in your kitchen: You have to block all the holes, or some of them are going to find a way in.'' But politics, unlike your kitchen, is designed to be per-meable. The logic of command-and-control is inexorable: To make hard-money controls work, you must ban soft money, and to make soft-money controls work, you must also limit independent political advocacy by interest groups. This cure cannot proceed very far without killing the patient.
Take, for example, S 25, the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, sponsored by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Russell Feingold, D-Wis., and endorsed by President Clinton. The idea is to limit independent ''issue ads'' by expanding the definition of ''express political advocacy,'' which is regulable. The result is a good example of what happens when reformers set out to solve the problem, as they deem it to be, of groups spending too much to express political opinions: ''If a disbursement aggregating $10,000 or more for any general public communication is made prior to 30 days before a primary election or prior to 60 days before a general election, it shall be considered express advocacy if a reasonable person would understand it as advocating the election or defeat of a clearly identified candidate and if the communication is made with the purpose of advocating the election or defeat of a candidate as shown by one or more factors including a statement or action by the person making the communication, the targeting or placement of the communication, or the use by the person making the communication of polling or other similar data relating to the candidate's campaign or election.''
In other words, regulators (''a reasonable person'') would have wide latitude (''one or more factors'') to decide what constitutes express political advocacy, and instead of protecting it, they would limit it. Not only would this be wildly contentious to administer, it also would be dicey, to say the least, from a 1st Amendment point of view. The real-world outcome would be to dress up political speech in all sorts of silly disguises. Given that the whole point of any campaign finance system is (or should be) to encourage frank and robust political debate, closeting political speech is like making a car safer by taking the wheels off.
LAWS AGAINST ETHICS
THE late Aaron Wildavsky, a renowned political scientist, once waggishly spoke of law's ''Latin Americanization,'' which happens when legislators spend their time passing new laws requiring the enforcement of the old laws. Command-and-control campaign rules are drifting in that direction, as the effort to ''plug loopholes'' feeds mindlessly on itself. Already the rules are so complicated that only lawyers can understand them, and even the lawyers can't tell if they are within the law until the FEC or a court makes up its mind. ''When even the Justice Department has no idea what the law permits and prohibits, I think it's pretty complicated,'' says Trevor Potter, a former FEC chairman who is now with the law firm of Wiley, Rein & Fielding.
Today's 1970s-style reformers would unflinchingly compound the problem. Here is the McCain-Feingold formula for Senate spending limits, as summarized (and somewhat clarified) by Citizen Action, a public-interest group: ''Lesser of 1) $5.5 million and 2) $400,000 plus (30 cents x voting-age population up to four million) plus (25 cents x voting-age population over four million) with a minimum cap of $950,000. Small media market exception allows No. 2 to be increased to $400,000 plus (80 cents x voting-age population up to four million) plus (70 cents x voting-age population over four million). Expenditure limit is raised by 50 per cent once opponent exceeds 105 per cent of limit and 100 per cent once opponent exceeds 155 per cent of limit.''
This might all be worth the trouble if the end result were cleaner politics. But in fact, the only result is a more rule-bound politics, which is not the same thing. The most insidious effect is moral: the diversion of public and press attention from ethics (what politicians should do) to legality (what they can do).
In February, when President Clinton stepped before the press corps with documents showing he personally approved White House stays for big-money Democratic Party donors, he sidestepped the ethical issues precisely by arguing the legal ones. No ''legal issue'' was raised by his activities, he said; no solicitation took place physically within the White House. In March, when Vice President Al Gore was discovered to have placed $40 million worth of fund-raising calls from his office, he said, ''There is no controlling legal authority that says that any of these activities violated any law.''
Laws against soliciting campaign donations on federal property are worth having and enforcing. But does anyone really think it matters much whether contributions were solicited in the White House, over coffee with the President, or a few minutes afterward and just outside the gate? Is it reassuring that Gore used his Clinton-Gore campaign credit card to pay for his fund- raising calls? Everyone knows what was going on here: The President and Vice President were using their positions to raise money. Clinton argued that meeting with his supporters was a reasonable thing to do. His critics argued that he went too far. That is the ethical question that voters, politicians and pundits need to talk about. The legal question--whether the President managed to stay just inside the rules--is, by comparison, a technicality.
Outright bribery--the trading of money for specified political favors--is fairly easy to draw a bright line around. But between bribery and town hall meetings is a vast gray zone in which politicians and their supporters scratch each other's backs. This is known as politics. If sugar growers donate heavily to a Louisiana Member of Congress who votes for sugar subsidies, is that wrong, or is it legitimate support for a like-minded candidate? What if the Louisiana Member honestly believes he would have voted pro-sugar anyway? What if he takes no money but becomes a sugar lobbyist after leaving office? What if he raises money from both the sugar people and their opponents?
No two people will feel quite the same way about any of these cases, to say nothing of all of them. It is important to see that there is no sharp line, even in principle. So the answer must be to let each voter decide for himself how sleazy is too sleazy. The most subtly pernicious side effect of wrapping campaign finance in layers of legalese is that the system obscures ethical choices where it should clarify them.
WHAT to do, then? First and foremost, start over from real-world premises: First, puritanism is the problem, not the solution. You can't get private money out of politics, so don't try. Equally important, if less obvious: Command-and-control regulation can work no better in the political economy than in the real economy.
Second, sleaze is subjective. In the messy world of democratic politics, the line between influence-buying and legitimate (indeed necessary) political expression is open to fair dispute. Campaign finance law needs to clarify rather than confuse ethical issues. Then it should get out of the way and let voters do their job.
Third, neatness counts. Rules on top of rules quickly lose sight of the problem they were intended to solve. Any successful regime needs to be intelligible to ordinary voters, and it must not try to do too much. The goals need to be simple, coherent and attainable, with expectations kept reasonable (meaning low).
Fourth, and not least important: There are problems, and they won't go away on their own.
Political scientists who examine the evidence suggest that the influence of money on congressional votes is fairly small. Frank J. Sorauf, a professor emeritus at the University of Minnesota, has written: ''There simply are no data in the systematic studies that would support the popular assertions about the 'buying' of the Congress or any other massive influence of money on the legislative process. Even taking the evidence selectively, there is at best a case for a modest influence of money.'' This is not all that surprising, given that almost every conceivable interest plays the money game. Much, maybe most, private money is spent trying to cancel out other money. All of it, however, is intended to buy access, which is, at least, distasteful.
Money may, moreover, compromise the front end of the process--candidate selection--more than it does the policy product. These days, you don't run for political office unless you want to be a full-time fund raiser, or else are filthy rich. Recently both parties have taken to recruiting Senate candidates on the basis of their ability to finance their own campaigns. If you don't have money, you need to be the sort of person who enjoys dialing for dollars 365 days a year. That is not a very ordinary kind of citizen.
Finally, there is the appearance problem, and it is not a small one. How can you convince the voters the system is not corrupt when they know full well that it is financed by brigades of special interests? In a democracy, the appearance of wholesale corruption is itself corrupting. ''I don't think the system stinks in terms of quid pro quos,'' says one Washington lobbyist who raises money for Republicans, ''but everyone outside the Beltway does. It is not good for the country.''
So here is the question: Is there something to be done that fits within real-world premises? Yes.
AN IMMODEST PROPOSAL
HERE is how the scheme might work. * A pot of taxpayer money (or money plus television time), for campaigning in primaries as well as general elections, would be made available to candidates who reached a qualifying threshold. The sums would need to be generous enough to let participating candidates break through to the public.
* Candidates who took public money would agree, in exchange, that neither they nor their staffs would engage in fund raising on anyone's behalf, nor would they coordinate or participate in any political fund raising campaigns conducted by others.
* Private political spending--by candidates, by parties and (over reasonable thresholds) by individuals and groups--would be rigorously disclosed and meaningfully reported. A lot can be done on this score: for example, mandatory electronic filing, with data transmitted to the public in digestible form and on as close to a real-time basis as possible, preferably on the World Wide Web.
* Finally, all other rules governing private political giving and spending would be abolished. Privately funded candidates and political parties could raise as much money as they liked from whomever they chose in whatever amounts, and private actors could spend as much as they liked (conditioned, of course, on full and prompt disclosure).
Call it two-tracking: public finance plus private deregulation. Is it perfect? No. But it accomplishes, with a minimum of clutter, the most important things that a campaign finance regime needs to do.
It creates relatively unsullied paths to power, for politicians and voters who are inclined to use them. It lets candidates benefit from special-interest support without depending on it. It does so in a way that is consistent with the 1st Amendment, allowing, indeed encouraging, plenty of participation and expression, as long as those spending to influence politics reveal themselves to the public. It sweeps away, at a stroke, the gobbledygook that interposes gibbering hordes of lawyers and bureaucrats between politicians and voters.
Above all, it is simple and understandable, to voters as well as to politicians. Ethical choices are clarified, not obscured, and would figure plainly in every campaign. Every candidate would need to decide, right at the start: Do I want to play the money game, or not? And if I do, am I willing to justify myself in a campaign, against an opponent who will use my decision against me? Every voter would need to decide: How much does the money game disturb me? Does it disqualify a candidate, merely tarnish him, or do I really not much care?
Many people will vote for candidates who take private money--and that is fine, so long as the voters' eyes are open. What matters, from a public policy point of view, is not eliminating special-interest influence--a goal that is misguided as well as quixotic--but making sure that the influence is neither secret nor ubiquitous. Once that is done, there is no compelling reason to ration political donations or to fear private money. Let candidates do what they want and take their chances with the voters.
Many people will wonder if step three--eliminating the current command-and-control rules--is really necessary. Why not just add public financing to the existing system? That is what Maine did last year in a pathbreaking initiative. Beginning in the year 2000, candidates for state office in Maine can receive full public funding, including in the primaries, if they reject the private kind. But other state controls remain in place. In fact, Maine tightened some of them, reducing contribution limits to a wafer-thin $250 for state legislative candidates.
The answer is that merely layering public money on top of command-and-control misses the boat, in a lot of ways. A great advantage of two-tracking is its moral and legal simplicity. By contrast, putting a rule-bound publicly financed system alongside an equally rule-bound privately financed one just adds to the mess, and would let privately financed candidates kick legalistic sand in voters' eyes. One candidate would say, ''I take no private money,'' and the other would retort, ''Maybe, but all of my private money meets federal rules, so what's the problem?''
Another great advantage of a genuine two-track system is that it is truly voluntary. If you think the public finance system is unfair, inadequate or stupid, you can run your campaign the way you want (a prerogative that will be important for challengers facing publicly funded incumbents). Just be ready to explain yourself to the electorate.
In any case, if the current system accomplishes nothing, why keep it? Leave the 1970s structure in place, and all of today's nonsense distinctions and perverse rule-gaming (such as parties' absurdly disguising their campaign ads) would remain, as would all of tomorrow's further convolutions in search of patchwork repairs. When voters can identify and punish venality by voting for an alternative, there is no need for complex (and ineffective) rules to identify and punish venality for them. Lawyers who specialize in distinguishing ''issue education'' from ''express advocacy'' would have time to find more meaningful work.
Finally, trying to keep both systems alive spoils a golden bargain, not only politically but conceptually. Conservatives dislike public financing, which they regard as intrusive and as ''food stamps for politicians''; but with the two-track plan, public funding buys vastly expanded freedom for private political expression, an enormous gain. Liberals dislike politi-cal deregulation, which they view as allowing special- interest abuses; but with the two-track plan, deregulation buys public financing, which can circumvent the special interests altogether.
In short, the promise of two-tracking--its combination of clarity, cleanliness and political freedom--comes neither from public financing nor from private deregulation, but from combining the two.
BUT WOULD IT WORK?
''BUT arranging public financing is tricky.'' Where do you set the threshold to qualify for public money in primaries? Set the entry bar too high, and only the rich or well-connected can get over it; set it too low, and flakes may mob the system. And how do you allocate public money for campaigns? Someone will always complain of unfairness. And what about all the complexities introduced by allocation formulas and the like?
This clutch of problems is inherent to any sort of public-financing scheme, with or without deregulation on the other track. The answer is that there is no perfect answer. Some flakes will receive taxpayer money, and some people will complain about unfairness. It is important to see, however, that such problems matter much less in a strictly voluntary system of public funding. If you don't like your treatment in the public system, or if you believe the rules are too complex, you can go out and run any sort of campaign you want.
Under Maine's new law, legislative candidates qualify for public money by gathering a specified number of $5 contributions and can raise and spend private money only for that purpose (after they qualify for public funding, their remaining campaign war chests go into the state elections fund). The existing national system of public financing for presidential races allows limited private fund raising for primaries, with a public match. There are a lot of reasonable ways to set qualifying thresholds. As for allocating money, Maine gives its candidates 75 per cent of the average cost of the last two elections in their district (reckoning that a 100 per cent match would be unnecessary because public financing will save candidates the considerable time and money that they now spend raising funds); the federal presidential system uses formulas. Again, there are many workable options, none perfect but all much better than a system with no such options at all.
''Well, it's going to be expensive.'' This plan will not work on the cheap; public funding need not match every race's biggest spender, but it needs to provide a generous floor. That could cost a billion or two, nationally. In a $1.7 trillion budget, this is not actually a crushing objection; $10-$ 20 per taxpayer every couple of years is not an unreasonable amount. One way or another, money will be spent on politics; the question is whether some of the money will be spent to buy independence from lobbies, rather than influence for them.
''What about private expenditures? And 'independent' expenditures? You won't get rid of those.'' True. Two-tracking makes private spending a campaign issue, rather than trying to eliminate it. But this is an enormous advantage, not a shortcoming.
Suppose Candidate Gray runs a privately funded House campaign, and takes a $200,000 direct contribution from the Toxic Polluters League (which would be illegal now). Candidate Green, who is participating in the public system, makes sure the voters know who is backing her rival. But the Clean Earth Coalition is spending $50,000 on ads backing Green--all disclosed, of course. Doesn't that defeat the purpose?
No. Participatory spending in politics is not a problem and should not be ''solved.'' The point of reform is not to shut up the Clean Earth Coalition or any other interested spender; it is to give voters and candidates some independence from them. Obviously, Candidate Green knows that the Clean Earthers took her side; just as obviously, the environmentalists expect Green to be a friend of the earth. But Green, if she kept her word, has neither solicited money from the Clean Earthers nor promised them anything in return, and she knows that if she is elected, she will have public money available for her next reelection campaign, even if she paves Yellowstone. She need not spend her congressional term accommodating her friends or begging from them.
So, yes, private money would and should continue to play a role even in publicly financed campaigns. Nothing can be done about that, as the past 20 years have shown. But voters can grasp the distinction between a candidate who benefits from special- interest spending and a candidate who depends upon it.
''Won't the parties just go on taking private money?'' Yes. In fact, they will raise more of it, stepping in on behalf of publicly funded candidates who seem likely to be overwhelmed by wealthy private rivals. But this, too, is an advantage, not a shortcoming.
A major reason for the sudden blossoming of independent political spending is that donors can give only so much to the political parties for campaigns. Two-tracking allows parties to raise (and spend) as much as they like. Much money that is now channeled outside the system will thus flow to the Republicans and Democrats. This is a good thing. Parties can discipline their candidates while steering money to the races where it matters most. Not least, they serve as a buffer between political contributions and political favors.
Let's say that Republican Senate Candidate Smith accepts public financing and forgoes fund raising. That won't stop Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato, R-N.Y., the head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, from raising money for key Republican campaigns, presumably including Smith's. Maybe after the elections, D'Amato will remind Sen. Smith that tobacco was very helpful to the party, which was helpful to Smith. But so what? Remember, you can't extinguish the link between money and influence, only weaken it; and buying influence from a party is much harder than buying it from a candidate, because a party does not have a vote in the Agriculture Committee. It is much better for Smith to be dependent on his party than on tobacco barons.
A notable side benefit would be the strengthening of the parties themselves. Many theorists have long argued that parties, with their national base and longer-term view, are a useful check on the depredations of parochial special interests allied with equally parochial legislators. Turning the parties into the major clearinghouses for private political money would be to the good.
''Maybe so, but what about private candidates who win by taking million-dollar donations from fat cats?'' To begin with, it is not clear that this is much worse than when tycoons bankroll themselves, as Ross Perot and Steve Forbes did. Besides, if the Toxic Polluters League wants to bankroll a congressional candidate, it should be free to try, provided that the public knows what's going on. Some special-interest candidates might occasionally get elected (just as they occasionally do today). On the other side of the ledger, the public-finance track would open the door to more candidates whose strength is their message, not their money. At the end of the day, the voters get more choice, which is good.
''Might not private spending swamp publicly funded candidates, drowning them out?'' It is hard to solve this problem without ''solving'' free speech. Maine tries to deal with it by giving every publicly funded candidate countersubsidies to match private money spent on his opponent's behalf. A Maine-inspired federal proposal--announced on March 18 by Sens. John Glenn, D- Ohio, John F. Kerry, D-Mass., and Paul Wellstone, D-Minn.--takes the same tack. Such offsetting subsidies greatly reduce the incentive to spend privately: Every dollar that a lobby spends on behalf of Smith is also a dollar in the pocket of Smith's opponent.
Another, simpler approach is to rely on the parties themselves to provide offsetting subsidies. If a race attracts a blizzard of private spending, national parties will step in. In some races, heavy private spending may stimulate a backlash (Ad: ''Don't let the trial lawyers buy this race''). In any case, remember: Drowning out is a problem now because candidates and parties face fund-raising constraints but outside groups do not. By untying the parties' hands, two-tracking is part of the solution.
''Disclosure is far from foolproof. Often people still won't know what's going on.'' Right. But tell it to President Clinton: Many observers believe that the trickle of preelection sleaze (the Asian money connection and suchlike) cost him his keenly sought majority of the popular vote, and may have cost the Democrats the House. Disclosure is poor at exposing small rules violations, but it is quite effective at raising the larger issues that count, as when a candidate exhibits a consistent pattern of venality, or when a special interest dumps an egregious sum into a campaign. If, after the press has aired the story, the public still chooses an ethically challenged candidate--well, that's democracy.
''All right, but rich interests and narrrowly focused groups would still have an advantage.'' Of course they would, and no power on earth can change that. The beginning of sensible reform is to recognize that there will always be a lot of private money sloshing through the system because government itself is about money (this year, $1.7 trillion of it). A wise campaign-finance regime tries to do nothing more than to keep the money above ground, and to provide a refuge for voters and politicians who want some degree of freedom from it. Two-tracking does both.
In their new reform plan, Glenn, Kerry and Wellstone propose to do more than provide for public financing. They would also wrap the system in more layers of command-and-control: a ban on PAC contributions to candidates, a ban on soft money, restrictions on ''election-influencing'' speech, and so on. Eventually, reformers are likely to figure out that this war on private political money is merely contorting political activity rather than cleaning it up, and that it is propelling policy toward fathomless complexity and grotesque unwieldiness. Then they may stop demanding, as one group's recent press release did, changes that ''stop the flow of special-interest money'' and ''eliminate the influence of wealthy special interests.'' They may settle for the possible instead.
Rather than trying to change the weather, two-tracking offers shelter from the rain. That is all it does, and all a sensible regime should try to do. Thus it might actually work.