Mitt Romney took a few shots last night, but he finished on a strong note in last night’s debate on what has become the important issue of the last couple of weeks. No, it’s not Bain, at least not directly, but the absurd campaign finance regulations that have allowed the super-PACs to run attacks on issues like Bain Capital, Newt Gingrich’s supposed (and false) sympathy for China’s one-child policy, and so on. At the end of the debate, Gingrich challenged Romney to tell his super-PAC supporters to pull that ad while admitting that Romney didn’t have any legal standing to do so. Romney agreed, but then went to the heart of the matter in his final minute:
ROMNEY: We all would like to have Super PACs disappear, to tell you the truth. Wouldn’t it nice to have people give what they would like to to campaigns and campaigns could run their own ads and take responsibility for them. But you know what, this campaign is not about ads, it’s about issues.
BAIER: So governor Romney, in the general election, if you are the nominee you would like to see Super PACs ended?
ROMNEY: Oh, I would like to get rid of the campaign finance laws that were put in place McCain-Feingold is a disaster, get rid of it. Let people make contributions they want to make to campaigns, let campaigns then take responsibility for their own words and not have this strange situation we have people out there who support us, who run ads we don’t like, we would like to take off the air, they are outrageous and yet they are out there supporting us and by law we aren’t allows to talk to them.
I haven’t spoken to any of the people involved in my Super PAC in months and this is outrageous. Candidates should have the responsibility and the right to manage the ads that are being run on their behalf. I think this has to change.
Romney gets support from an unlikely quarter in today’s Washington Post. Richard Cohen started out his career covering the 1968 presidential election and recalls how Eugene McCarthy managed to push Lyndon Johnson into retirement — and it wasn’t by selling apples on the street corner:
The late chairman of the Dreyfus Corp. [Howard Stein] was a wealthy man but, unlike Adelson, a liberal Democrat. Stein joined with some other rich men — including Martin Peretz, the one-time publisher of the New Republic; Stewart Mott, a GM heir; and Arnold Hiatt of Stride Rite Shoes — to provide about $1.5 million for Eugene McCarthy’s 1968 challenge to Lyndon Johnson. Stein and his colleagues did not raise this money in itsy-bitsy donations but by chipping in large amounts themselves. Peretz told me he kicked in $30,000. That was a huge amount of money at the time.
That sort of donation would now be illegal — unless it was given to a super PAC that swore not to coordinate with the candidate. And until quite recently, even that would have been illegal — the limit being something like $2,400. Many people bemoan that the limit is no more, asserting that elections are now up for sale, as if this was something new. They point to the Adelson contribution and unload invective on the poor right-wing gambling tycoon. I understand, but I do not agree.
Back in 1967, a small group of men gave McCarthy the wherewithal to challenge a sitting president of the United States. The money enabled McCarthy to swiftly set up a New Hampshire operation and — lo and behold — he got 42 percent of the popular vote, an astounding figure. Johnson was rocked. Four days later, Robert F. Kennedy, who at first had declined to do what McCarthy did, jumped in himself. By the end of March 1968, Johnson was on TV, announcing he would not seek a second term. …
Sheldon Adelson is not my type of guy. I don’t like his politics. But he has no less right to try his own hand at history than did that band of rich men who were convinced the war was a travesty-tragedy — and they were right. Since 1968, my views have changed on many matters. But my bottom line remains a fervent belief in the beauty and utility of free speech and of the widest exchange of ideas. I am comfortable with dirty politics. I fear living with less free speech.
Exactly. As I have written a number of times, campaign-finance “reforms” that restrict contributions create the kind of distortions that result in super-PACs. If people were free to contribute directly to candidates and political parties in the amounts they desired, there wouldn’t be a need for the outside groups to exist at all. Then we could hold candidates and political parties responsible for the messaging in the campaigns — and that would almost certainly improve the tone of campaigning markedly.
All we would need is immediate and full disclosure of all campaign contributions, which was impractical 40 years ago when “reformers” started creating all of these artificial categories of money in campaigns — “soft,” “hard,” “non-coordinated,” and so on. It’s no longer impractical with the Internet. Make campaign contribution records public on the Internet with immediate FEC reporting and a searchable database, and that would be plenty for voters to determine who owns whom. Add to that the end of tax-deductible status for PACs and other political organizations, and no one will have any reason to contribute to them any longer, which will put them out of business.
The more nooks and crannies we create, the more opportunities for corruption arise. We need total sunlight, not speech restrictions. Romney and Cohen are correct, and even if you don’t like Romney, we should be taking his advice in this case.