Dean: Opting Out . . .
By George F. Will
Which brings us to Howard Dean's decision, made after an East German-style plebiscite among his faithful, to forgo government funding of his campaign for the Democratic nomination, thereby escaping spending limits. He will rely on the voluntary contributions of people who agree with him. What a concept.
Dean's sensible and entirely self-interested decision means he knows he can get more money on his own than he can from the government. He has discovered the obvious: The government, by its restrictions on the amounts and conduits of political giving, has turned something that exists in wild abundance in America -- money -- into a scarcity (as the postwar Labor government did with coal and fish).
The Internet has, as technology often does, raced ahead, leaving the creaking, clanking machinery of government regulation looking anachronistic. Dean is redundant proof of what opponents of campaign finance limits have always argued: Money validates strength more than it creates strength. That is, Dean is not attracting supporters because he has money, he is attracting money because he has supporters.
Campaign finance reformers have three premises: There is "too much" money in politics. Money is corrupting. And when government limits the amount, timing and content of paid political communication, it does not limit freedom of speech.
Too much money? John Kerry, praising the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law, noted with dismay that "$3 billion was spent" on politics in 2000. Actually, that sum was spent on all federal elections in the 1999-2000 election cycle. Which means that in those two years Americans spent about half as much on the selection of a president, 435 members of the House of Representatives and 34 senators -- on democracy, that is -- as they spent on chewing gum.
Dean says his money cannot be corrupting. This is not just because his supporters are, of course, all altruistic but because much of it comes in small amounts. The average Dean contribution is $77. The average Bush contribution is $283.
Dean will derive a huge cash value, measured in many millions of dollars, from support he will get from just two immense interests that endorse him, the Service Employees International Union and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. But Dean, like most rhetorical supporters of limits on campaign spending, is an adjective fetishist. He is not offended by political participation through giving by interests, only by "special" interests.
There may be more moral vanity in Howard Dean than in any politician since Woodrow Wilson, which is why Dean is incapable of admitting that he has ever been wrong or changed his mind (about Medicare cuts, raising the retirement age, NAFTA, basing affirmative action on class rather than race, etc.). So now he says that unless he abandons public financing, his money will be gone when the primaries are over. Then Bush could spend to speak to the nation all summer, while he, Dean, would fall silent until after the Democratic convention, when he would get a fresh infusion of public money.
But notice that Dean's argument concedes what campaign finance regulators deny -- that money is tantamount to speech, and therefore limits on political money limit political speech. Note also that Dean refuses to limit the spending of his privately raised money in the primaries to the amount that his publicly financed rivals will be spending. Obviously his decision to rely on private money is motivated not just by fear of Bush after the primaries but also by his desire to outspend his rivals in primaries.
John Kerry, who married piles of money, may now decide to spend it. That decision is, legally and morally, between him and wife and is no one else's business. His spending will finance what he and other reformers say restrictions on political money do not restrict: speech. Good for him.
And it will be good for democracy if the Supreme Court is watching all this while it ponders the constitutionality of the McCain-Feingold campaign regulations.