Clean Elections Financiing
This was the text of a “My Turn” column that I submitted to the AZ Republic back on May 5, 2002. They did not publish it.
“What do the recent elections in France, our own Clean Elections regime in Arizona and the law of unintended consequences have in common? They show that our Founding Fathers were far wiser than we can ever begin to appreciate.
Reading the news reports out of Paris one can only laugh at the cheese eating surrender monkeys (as the National Review endearingly refer to the French) if it were not so close to the farce that we have forced on ourselves. In France a candidate at least needs to get 500 elected officials to sign a petition to get his name on the ballot to run for President while now through the good graces of our legislature (that teetering tower of financial restraint) it only takes a similar number of citizens to part with a measly $5 to force open the Public Purse and make our elections process a literal free for all so that that every fringe candidate on the margin with the ability to draw a like-minded mob can clear this speed bump on his way to a public feasting of spending and self laudatory publicity.
The intention of “Clean” Elections was admirable in that Candidates were now supposedly freed up to have time to meet with constituents about concerns instead of meeting with fat cats about cash. This was supposed to “even the playing field” between the entrenched incumbent and the struggling outsider. The reality is that the true outsiders on the fringe still do not have a chance (and beyond the rare “exception that proves the rule” never will) while the incumbent remains safely enthroned.
The incumbent is still in a far greater position to have his party browse the Rolodex to tap 500 “contributors” for their $5 donation, as is the main opposition party’s anointed candidate. The usual suspects on the extreme left and right (like Nader and Buchanan) will also have an easier time in fractionalizing the primary process since they to will easily be able to draw on their own relatively small pool of contributors to get their campaigns off to a running start.
The true “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” type of candidate was the intended beneficiary of this law but the problem with this fantasy is two-fold. The pool of contributors that a real Mr. Smith has to draw from tend to be more pragmatic or realistic when it comes to their elected officials and while they would probably give Mr. Smith that five spot they know that this is more a gift of charity rather than an honest donation to a political cause. They may see Mr. Smith as being a great guy with great ideas but they also realize that getting past political realities in a Primary election is considerably different than doing so in a General. Mr. Smith realizes this dichotomy too and since he still has to put food on the table for his family (unless he is independently wealthy in which case he does not care or need to dine at the public trough to begin with) he will ultimately decide that his time and energy is best spent taking care of his own home.
To win in our political system requires each of the following: Charisma, Concepts and Cash. Charisma so that people are willing to listen to your Concepts and Cash to get your message out. Clean Elections only addresses one of these needs. The candidate that has Charisma and Concepts will attract the Cash required to move beyond the Primary and to the General Election, while no amount of Clean Elections Cash will overcome deficits in Charisma and Concepts.
So what are we left with? Well an examination of the French election will be instructive. We get mainstream candidates vetted by the major political parties forced to duke it out with the unelectable fringe at public expense. For what purpose? To broaden public discourse? Please! The fringe candidate (be they from PETA or the Aryan Nation here or the Postal Socialist and the National Front in France) must know that they do not stand a chance of being elected and are only in the fight to push a single narrow agenda. If they are laboring under the delusion that they can actually win then the public purse needs to be spent providing them with a padded cell rather than a soapbox. The unintended consequence of Clean Elections is that it only cleans out the public purse and does not actually encourage Mr. Smith to run. We only need to look at the current slate of candidates to see this truth.
We can also only hope that further unintended consequences of Campaign Finance Reform coupled with Clean Elections will not allow a fringe candidate to make it to the General Election where the burgeoning intolerance of the tolerant would lead to a report like this one from by NBC: “Some voters did not go happily to the polls. A few leftists said they were so displeased with the choice offered that they planned to cast ballots for the conservative Chirac, who is plagued by corruption scandals, wearing latex gloves or with clothespins on their noses. French officials warned that such a public display could lead to fines or the annulment of a vote.”
Vive La France. The Arizona Legislature and John McCain sure have a great roll model to follow! “