The McCain-Feingold Effect
Where has all the money gone?
BY KIMBERLEY A. STRASSEL
Friday, July 13, 2007 12:01 a.m. EDT
John McCain's campaign fell into disarray this week, kicked off by the news it had raised a scant $24 million so far. Mark these money woes down to any number of problems, but don't entirely discount the McCain-Feingold effect.
Let's stipulate that most of the good senator's troubles stem from high-profile policy disagreements he's had with his own base. He's tweaked noses on global warming and slapped faces on immigration. His admirable decision to stand strong on Iraq has been undermined by his tendency to stand weak on national security issues such as interrogations and enemy combatants. And economic conservatives just don't trust a guy who won't admit that cutting taxes is good.
Yet while each of these issues has undoubtedly taken its financial toll, Mr. McCain has labored under yet one more burden: McCain-Feingold. He was the prime author of that 2002 law, which took direct aim at his own party and its activists, making it harder for them to collect money, register voters and voice opinions about candidates. It left the very people so vital to a campaign in its early stages--those who write checks, knock on doors, turn out for primaries--furious with him. Talks with party officials and activists today suggest that hostility remains, and has played into his money difficulties.
"For most conservatives, campaign finance is conceptually pretty easy; they saw it as targeting them," says Bradley Smith, former chairman of the Federal Election Commission, now a professor of law at Capital University and chairman of the Center for Competitive Politics. "I've been surprised at how angry people were, and remain, over that law."
Don't underestimate just how many Americans he means. Huge and influential interest groups such as the National Rifle Association and the National Right to Life Committee viewed McCain-Feingold as a direct threat to their missions. Both were among the first to sue over parts of the law, including provisions barring ads 30 to 60 days before primaries and elections.
Both also went out of their way to inform their memberships about McCain-Feingold's threats to free speech and activists' ability to target politicians who support gun laws or abortion. For years now, the NRA has bombarded its four million members with information and attacks on the law via its magazines, emails, direct mailing, telephone calls and its satellite radio program. "Our members are more politically savvy, more in tune, and they understand the impact of McCain-Feingold more than your average interest-group member," says Andrew Arulanandam, director of public affairs at the NRA. Which is another way of saying they aren't always keen to open their wallets for Mr. McCain.
National Right to Life took campaign-finance restrictions so seriously that it included McCain-Feingold as two of three key votes it used to score Senate members in 2002 (the third was a ban on abortions in military medical facilities). It has reminded its many subscribers to its monthly newsletter of the law's problems. David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union (ACU), the nation's oldest conservative lobby group, goes so far as to say that he always thought "there was a ceiling on [McCain's] support," largely because of McCain-Feingold.
That ceiling, if it does exist, isn't just on financial donors, but on those in the party apparatus who might otherwise be out drumming up support. The Republican National Committee membership as recently as this January passed a resolution condemning McCain-Feingold, which could only be seen as a rebuke to one of the party's leading candidates for the presidential nomination. "The RNC is interesting; it is overwhelmingly negative [toward him], and that seems to be driven by campaign-finance reform," says David Norcross, New Jersey's Republican National Committeeman.
Similarly, talk to Republican Party officials at the state, county and local level, and among their biggest gripes is the difficulties they face in recruiting local candidates, funding those candidates, and registering voters to support those candidates--all thanks to McCain-Feingold. Some leaders point to the lackluster support Mr. McCain has received from state delegates as an expression of this bitterness.
How much has this really made a difference to Mr. McCain's bank account? Impossible to say. Maybe lots, maybe only a few million dollars. McCain campaigners are quick to point out their guy has a better record on gun rights and life questions than do his leading opponents; they believe voters care more about that history than they do free-speech limitations. McCain fund-raisers say this isn't an issue they hear about when they are ginning up money.
Mr. McCain's opponents aren't as sanguine. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney made repeal of McCain-Feingold a key policy statement way back in March. Rudy Giuliani, who once supported McCain-Feingold, recently hailed the Supreme Court decision overturning part of that law as a "victory for free speech and personal liberty." Publicly, candidates present these views as a matter of principle, but privately some staffers admit it also has to do with collecting money.
All eyes are meanwhile on Fred Thompson, who was a supporter of campaign-finance restrictions in 2002. Mr. Keene of the ACU says he's already been getting calls from activists asking about Mr. Thompson's record in the Senate, and that he's been telling them that while the overall picture was good, "it would be better if he hadn't been a chief water-carrier for McCain-Feingold."
To the extent the former Tennessee senator has said anything, he's walking back. Early comments suggest he may argue McCain-Feingold was an experiment he supported at the time, but that simply hasn't panned out. He noted in June that the 30-60 days ad restrictions--coincidentally, the part of the law that most annoyed grassroots activists--weren't "working."
Whatever the effect, Mr. McCain must surely be considering the irony of his current situation. Mitt Romney has also burned through money quickly, and in theory should be looking at a low bank balance. But Mr. Romney can write himself a check at any time--one of the few things McCain-Feingold allows.
Mr. McCain might well have some billionaire supporters who'd be only too happy to give him a big financial boost at this crucial time, though they won't be allowed to thanks to finance restrictions. The senator has family money, though it's not clear he'd tap that to keep his bid running. For now, he's stuck raising it the hard way, under a system that much of the GOP hates.
Ms. Strassel is a member of The Wall Street Journal's editorial board, based in Washington. Her column appears Fridays.