Taking the ‘reform’ pitch about money in politics

Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson was once the editorial page editor for the Virginian-Pilot before serving in the Reagan Justice Department and then being appointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit.  Boy, do we wish he was still editorializing at his old newspaper, especially on campaign finance.

That’s because Judge Wilkinson gets it, as he proved last May when he authored one of the most significant and thorough campaign finance decisions in recent memory.  Sadly, we cannot say the same for the Pilot‘s current editorial board.

On Sunday, the Pilot published what amounts to nothing more than a knee-jerk editorial bemoaning that “[b]ig money [has] arrive[d] in Virginia politics” — thus taking the pitch always thrown by the so-called “reform” community.

The editorial claims that, while “Virginia was once considered the minor leagues for political fundraising,” this year’s Democratic gubernatorial primary — featuring former DNC Chairman Terry McAuliffe, Congressional little brother Brian Moran, and State Senator Creigh Deeds — has pushed the state into “the big leagues of political swag.”  Further extending the baseball metaphor, the editorial laments that, despite a couple of these candidates’ fundraising prowess, Virginia is “still using campaign finance rules and referees that would have trouble maintaining control of a T-ball game.”

That’s the typical campaign finance “reform” mindset, and we’ve heard it repeated over and over again.

But what’s truly remarkable about the Pilot‘s editorial is that it openly — perhaps unwittingly — acknowledges that campaign finance restrictions are used hypocritically by candidates to attack and harass their opponents when those opponents have demonstrated their political chops through fundraising success.  In other words, campaign finance regulations simply provide another tactic that politicians use to win an election — just like successful fundraising.

Indeed, whether inadvertant or not, the Pilot editorial makes this point not once but twice in its less than 500 words.

The editorial first notes that the apparent fundraising lightweight in the campaign, State Senator Deeds, “made an issue of his compatriots’ finances during last weekend’s debate, urging Virginia against allowing ‘the Wall Street culture or the corrupt political establishment to dictate our agenda.'”  Unfortunately for Deeds, the record shows that his rhetoric came only after he failed to garner his own support from some of the same contributors.

As the Pilot makes perfectly clear, after attacking McAuliffe and Moran for successfully fundraising, Deeds “later admitted he had also solicited donations — unsuccessfully — from some of the same defense contractors he had criticized Moran for schmoozing.”  This has to make you wonder whether Deeds would be swinging his bat for tighter campaign finance restrictions if some of his own solicitations had come back with checks enclosed.

But Deeds isn’t alone in his hypocrisy.  Next we learn in the Pilot‘s editorial that Moran — who is contribution connected through his Congressional brother representing wealthy Northern Virginia — wouldn’t mind campaign finance restrictions himself because he is trailing the fundraising success of former DNC Chairman McAuliffe.

“I bet Creigh [Deeds] and I wish we had passed those last year,” Moran is quoted as saying when “[a]sked for his views on campaign finance restrictions.”

Of course the real point that is completely missed by the Pilot‘s editorial is that campaign finance “reform” has never been a silver bullet that ensures good government.  In fact, from the newspaper’s location in Virginia, the editorial board should have been well aware of that fact since its home state has consistently been top ranked among the 50 states for the quality of its government management by the respected Governing magazine — while having one of the least restrictive campaign finance regimes in the country.

The same can’t be said for states that have taken the pro-regulatory anti-contribution pro-taxpayer-financing stance for campaigns.  The Governing magazine that ranked Virginia tops for its government management with few campaign finance restrictions, also ranked states like Arizona and Maine at or below the national median for their government management despite both tightly controlling money in politics.

The truth of the matter is that empirical research has never shown that campaign contributions systematically corrupt candidates, which is why Virginia has continued to rank at the top of Governing magazine’s good government survey with few campaign finance requirements.

This is not to say there aren’t politicians who are willing to be, and have been, corrupted, it’s just not the all but inevitrable phenomenon campaign finance “reformers” continue to pitch to the public — with editorial boards like the Pilot‘s all too often taking the strike.

The Center for Competitive Politics is now the Institute for Free Speech.