McCain Shoots Himself in the Wallet

McCain's campaign-finance reform law is kneecapping him.

Among the many, many reasons conservatives are leery of Senator McCain is his longstanding advocacy for government restrictions on free political speech, otherwise known as "campaign finance reform."  He feels so strongly on this subject that his name is inextricably linked with the most recent legislation on the subject, "McCain-Feingold".

In a marvelous illustration of poetic justice, it now appears that that very law may put a serious handicap on the Senator's long-desired run for the Presidency.

The argument for government regulation of campaign financing goes that, since it takes a preposterously huge amount of money to run a national political campaign, and since it's easier to talk a handful of really rich people into writing you a few whopping great checks than to convince thousands and thousands of ordinary folks to write you thousands and thousands of little checks, an unfair advantage is given to "malefactors of great wealth" who can manipulate our political system.

Nobody who donates $200 to a candidate expects that candidate to give their personal views a moment's thought, but if you are a politician and someone gives you $1 million, you're going to pick up the telephone any time they want to talk.

Traditionally, there have been two approaches to campaign finance regulation: laws restricting the amount each individual can give, or who/what can give at all; and laws offering free Federal money in exchange for tighter self-imposed restrictions.  McCain supports both these approaches.

Aside from the fact that many elements of campaign finance reform have been repeatedly found to be unconstitutional, there are a good many practical problems.  For one thing, as the Clintons have repeatedly demonstrated, there are plenty of ways to dodge the rules if you don't mind a little lying and cheating; you don't even have to go so far as stealing although it helps.

For another, a rich person who wants to influence politics need not hand over big bags of money to politicians; instead, he can use his money to found his own tax-free political movement, as George Soros has infamously done with  When that happens, there is no candidate who can control their actions or moderate their excesses.

Last, in some ways it makes the problem of wealth and power even more acute than before, by encouraging rich folks to run for office themselves since no law has ever prevented an individual from spending his or her own money.  The only reason people speculate about Mayor Bloomberg running for President is that he could afford to spend a billion or so of his own money promoting his candidacy.  Nobody knows how many votes he could get for a billion bucks, but it would be interesting to find out.

In some ways, though, the worst practical problem that onerous campaign finance laws cause is that they can easily back a candidate into an impossible paperwork corner.  Just such a fate has befallen Sen. John McCain.

One of the laws relating to presidential campaigns is that of Federal matching funds.  Simply put, this allows a candidate to pledge not to spend more than a regulated amount in any one state, and no more than a total of $54 million in the primary campaign, which by definition ends at the party convention, in exchange for receiving Federal matching funds.

This makes life easier on impoverished or little-known candidates.  McCain has never been little-known, but after the fiasco of last year's amnesty bill and his resulting war with conservatives, donations dried up and his campaign was riding on its uppers.  To prevent it from dying altogether, he signed up to get money from the Federal program.

Fast-forward to today.  McCain has the nomination all but in the bag.  He'd like to start directing his fire at the Democrats, but he's out of money - not that he can't get any more, but he's about to smash into the $54 million limit.  That knocks him off the air until the convention in September (this year, the GOP convention is much later than the usual July time frame).

It gets weirder.  The rules say that the FEC may permit a candidate to drop out of the program.  Dropping out removes the limit and lets him spend to his heart's content as long as (a) the candidate hasn't actually cashed any Federal checks yet, and (b) hasn't gotten any loans based on the assumption that he would get Federal funds.  McCain qualifies on both these grounds.  He can't just get out automatically, however, the FEC commissioners must vote to allow it.  But they can't.

The Federal election commission is a six-member board, nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate.  In order to even have a meeting, there must be four of the six members present.  Right now, there are only two board members.

The Senate, being under Democratic control, has refused to consider Mr. Bush's nominees to fill the missing four slots for a long time.  The Democrats hope that a Democratic President would nominate candidates who'd take a more benign view of the Democratic candidates' peccadilloes than Mr. Bush's nominees would - and kneecapping the Republican nominee in the meanwhile doesn't hurt, either.  The FEC is stuck, and so is John McCain.

It is a wonderful thing when truly stupid ideas return to bite the people that promoted them.  Congress exempts itself from most laws they pass, so Sen. McCain isn't accustomed to living with his own laws.  For all that the public would benefit from seeing the Democrat nominees have to answer challenges from the Republican side, it gives us a very warm, fuzzy feeling to watch Sen. McCain writhe in a trap of his own making.

One can't help but think that he might have done better had he believed in the First Amendment to the Constitution: "Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech" - especially when Dr. Ron Paul has shown everybody an eminently practical, constitutional alternative to McCain's ill-considered rules.

Petrarch is a contributing editor for Scragged.  Read other articles by Petrarch or other articles on Bureaucracy.
Reader Comments
Assuming that he can't unwind the red tape in which he has entwined himself, Sen. McCain has an alternative which would solve another of his problems.

Voters seem to feel that the economy is their #1 concern now that Iraq has dropped off the radar. That's bad for McCain because he's admitted that he doesn't know much about economics.

HOWEVER, he could solve BOTH of his economic problems at one stroke by choosing Steve Forbes as his running mate. Mr. Forbes balances McCain's ticket in two ways:

1) Mr. Forbes is known to know a LOT about how the economy really works. He's a successful businessman who knows a lot of other successful businessmen. This MIGHT help build bridges to the right.

2) Mr. Forbes has enough money to cover the advertising budget between now and September. That would force the Democrats to go into more detail about what they plan to do.

There IS a way for Mr. McCain to solve his problem. Let's see if he thinks of it.
February 25, 2008 10:03 AM
Thomas is right that Forbes has a lot of money, but WOULD he spend it for this? VP's aren't generally added to the ticket so that they'll pony up lots of dough. I can't recall that ever being the case. VP's are only useful in that they bring voters the candidated couldn't get on his own. Forbes is a moderate on many issues like McCain. I think the south will see them both as the same thing.
February 25, 2008 10:10 AM
Ha ha ha. Brilliant article. It's truly glorious when we can all partake in such schadenfreude. :)
February 25, 2008 11:28 AM
McCain reaps what he sows. The same sort of turnabout will also happen with the immigration mess. He has looked the other way and drank the Kool Aid his liberal friends offered, and that will come crashing back on his head and upon the heads of his children and grandchildren. One of the problems with government is that it takes too long for bad laws to show their hand. The people that enact bad legislation are usually dead or out of office when the citizenry REALLY start to pay for it. Would FDR still be in favor of starting social security if he were alive today?
February 25, 2008 11:39 AM
Your idea of Steve Forbes is an interesting one, though it's weak to the Achilles heel of all self-funded campaigns - the notion of "buying" an office doesn't fly well with American voters.
February 25, 2008 1:07 PM
And we saw how well Romney did with his self financed campaign.
February 25, 2008 3:10 PM
Actually, Romney raised more 3rd party money than any other GOP candidate. He just happened to spend a lot more too. His campaign was not "self financed" in the sense that he paid for most of it himself. He paid for about 30% of it himself, which is a lot of money considering the total was like $70m.
February 25, 2008 3:29 PM
Looks like the New York Sun has picked this story up. Their take on it is pretty much the same as Scragged's.
February 26, 2008 8:43 AM
It turns our that Mr. Obama has also shot himself. The Wall Street journal Feb 25 p A14 article Obama.s Finance Ploy points out that Mr. Obama, despite all his talk of cooperation and non partisanship, has himself personally blocked Mr. Bush's appointments to the FEC.

The specific person they admit that they do not like is Mr. von Spakovsky who has sponsored voter ID laws, all of which have been upheld in court, but Democrats want illegals to vote, so they are sandbagging him.

The Democrats knew about Hsu, it embarrassed them that Hillary had to give money back, so they did not want the FEC to do anything this election cycle. I think they KNEW that there is a lot more to Hsu than has come out, so they had to block the FEC.

Now that Obama wants the FEC to look into bad things Sen. McCain has supposed to have done, it can't respond to his complaint because HE has blocked the commission.

The Democrats overall blocked the FEC because they knew it would look beyond Hsu. What other illegal things have they done?

The law needs to be deep-sixed and replaced by Mr. Paul's solution - post every penny on the web. The Democrats don't like that one either because we'd know who owns them.
February 29, 2008 1:53 PM
Add Your Comment...
4000 characters remaining
Loading question...