Redefining campaign finance

Here in the company town of Washington, D.C. the assembly lines spent 2008 mass producing their one industrial product that can’t be outsourced and has made the city gloriously recession-proof.

So they were blithely working their craft — manufacturing loopholes — in gleaming factories on K Street and in sweatshops on Capitol Hill and the executive bureaucracy. Suddenly truth gave them a kick in the aspirations.

One of their most lucrative loopholes was unraveling, right before their disbelieving eyes.

The carefully stitched loopholes of campaign finance reform had been done in — by liberal reformers, whose ideological kinfolk were midwives back when today’s campaign finance reforms were born after the Watergate scandal.

Who’d a thunk it.

Those campaign finance reforms had been crafted to stop the big spending by special interest fat cats. They had been buying access and special favors by investing in politicians (a process also known as giving campaign contributions).

The reformers struck without warning. Now campaign finance reform will never be the same. There is much moaning and hand wringing. But it is coming from unlikely sources — from fat cats, who found themselves out-spent by millions of small contributors to Obama for President.

Looking back, we can all see when the undoing of the campaign finance reform began. It was the day Al Gore invented the Internet.

Soon, mass marketers discovered how to use the Internet to convince people to make pay-with-plastic purchases of cheap airfares, outdoor flannels, indoor frillies, XXX diversions.

Enter Barack Obama — a reformer’s reformer. Exit campaign finance as we know it. Obama’s supremely skilled strategists created a Web site that soon was commandeering the emails of the willing — who contributed massive money in small portions. Obama’s campaign funding soared to heights no Democrat had seen before — also no Republican. Little folks had out-contributed the fat cats.

This posed problems the political industry had never seen before. Certainly not Republican pols, who had always been comforted by the fat truth that they could outspend their opponents, at all levels, almost all the time. Democrats acted like those folks who win the lotteries and don’t know what to do with their windfall.

And speaking of not knowing what to do, feel for my fellow journalists. They’d never seen Democrats so fabulously funded, and their fingers froze when trying to type "Fat Cat Democrats." They looked befuddled, like they were covering the campaign not via CNN and C-Span, but by staring at Alice’s Looking Glass.

At first, Obama did what all Democrats reflexively do: He promised he’d take the $84-million public funding for his general election presidential campaign. After all, he was for letting the regular people fund our campaigns with their small donations — such as the $1 check-off on our income tax returns. (A check-off for just that one spending category was always silly. Did you also check a box to give a dollar in tax breaks for Exxon? Or for bailing out Wall Street? Just budget the money and spend it.)

But wait. What Obama did was to invent a new, more democratic method of campaign finance reform. Millions of Americans made small contributions and broke the grip of the fat cats. Obama vastly outspent John McCain, the old-time reformer who campaigned on $84 million in public funding.

Campaign finance reform will never be the same. But don’t wait around for a Requiem for The Loophole-Makers. Lawyers are craftily at work on their redemption. They are asking if liberal fat cats maybe divided their moolah into small bits and donated it to Obama’s Internet using phony names. Who’d know? That must be stopped.

This we know for sure: Someday soon, a new campaign finance reform loophole will be crafted — here in our company town.




(Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail him at martin.schram(at)