- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 30, 2003

Country singer Toby Keith's popular song, "I Should Have Been A Cowboy," pays homage to America's Wild West myth rugged folks living exciting lives, riding fast ponies in the wide-open spaces without many rules. While the real gunslingers disappeared with Doc Holiday and Wyatt Earp, political cowboys are poised to make a comeback because of an unintended consequence of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance legislation.

A special three-judge federal panel will issue a ruling any day now on the constitutionality of the new campaign-finance law. Their decision sets the stage for a certain Supreme Court fight (McCain-Feingold provides that any appeal of this panel go directly to the Supreme Court). The case could reshape the tone, substance and amount of political debate in this country, affecting the political behavior of lawmakers in this city.

Curtailing national political parties' ability to raise money and spend money, which the new law does, opens a new era in American elections one where political desperadoes control elections a la Dodge City just after vigilantes have hung the sheriff. Despite criticism from some reform groups, political parties, many experts say, serve as a much-needed moderating force in American elections. Yet the new law hobbles national political parties, shifting power to single-issue interest groups.

So called "issue ads" are one example. And if you think the old issue ads were a corrosive force in American elections pardn'r, you ain't seen nothing yet!

The old law drew a distinction between money raised by national political parties for federal election purposes and other tasks (office space, party building, administration etc.) Funds used exclusively in federal elections are called "hard" dollars, while non-federal resources are referred to as "soft money." (Some campaign finance experts also say "soft" money is a pejorative term, because in many states candidates and parties can raise and spend money from any source personal, corporate, union, etc.).

Up until the 1990s, soft money was not a controversial issue. However, in the latter part of the decade, both parties started using these funds to run so-called "issue ads." These advertisements could not advocate the election or defeat of a candidate, but could say something like: "Candidate X votes to pollute the environment. Call candidate X and tell him to stop it."

Yet, the new law will not end issue ads. Other groups are poised to step into the breach. These interest groups care only about narrow causes, thereby losing the moderating effect of political parties trying to pull a number of disparate groups under one big tent.

"The choices are balkanization or amelioration," one Republican campaign finance expert said. "Political parties play a very constructive role in American politics. They help many different people all put their hands on the same bat. When you weaken parties, you lose all that and devolve into a system of unrestrained factionalism."

So, how will this new world order play out? First, the soft money that parties used to raise will now flow to electoral advocacy organizations focused on a specific set of issues. These organizations lack the accountability of the broader interests represented by the two major political parties.

Second, despite the recent media attention on the GOP's "hard" money advantage, experts also say Democrats hold a substantial edge in the new "soft" money regime. Not because of more resources, but because of a more effective infrastructure of allied organizations that can simply transfer soft dollars from the Democratic party to a host of politically savvy organizations. Democrat-linked groups, like the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, the AFL-CIO and the League of Conservation Voters will spend millions of dollars that used to flow from Democrat soft-money accounts. "They used to give massive amounts of soft dollars to the Democratic National Committee," one campaign finance attorney said. "Now, they'll just go out and spend it on their own. They would rather do it that way."

James Madison did not foresee the development of two major national political parties in America when he wrote Federalist No. 10, but he did envision the corrosive power of uncontrolled factions. Over the past 200 years, political parties in America emerged as strong institutional check consistent with Madison's goal to control and balance the impact of narrow, self-interested groups.

The courts should provide national political parties the same electoral participation rights as other groups in America. The Wild West has some mythic sentimental appeal, but if the First Amendment allows gunslingers and bandits to proliferate in politics, why handicap national parties? The pending legal fight will not eliminate the role of parties in elections. But it could force them to leave some of their six-shooters on the table, while single-issue interest groups wreak havoc outside on the street.

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