- The Washington Times - Friday, November 14, 2003

Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean and a billionaire loon may have driven the final nails into the coffin of election finance reform.

Mr. Dean has announced he will not accept federal matching funds for his campaign for president. The decision will cost him $19 million, but will free him from spending limits in the primaries he would have to abide by if he accepted federal money.

George Soros, one of the world’s richest men with an estimated fortune of $7 billion, told The Washington Post that defeating President Bush has become “the central focus of my life.”

Mr. Soros is putting his money where his mouth his. He has contributed more than $15 million to liberal groups whose purpose is to circumvent the restrictions imposed on candidate committees and political parties by the McCain-Feingold law.

Mr. Soros has some unusual political ideas. He blames anti-Semitism in Europe and the Arab world on Israel and the Bush administration, and likens President Bush to Adolf Hitler.

What Mr. Dean and Mr. Soros are doing is neither illegal or immoral. But it is hypocritical, since both have in the past pledged their undying troth to campaign finance reform. Mr. Dean and Mr. Soros oppose the influence of big money on politics… except when the big money is being spent on behalf of Democrats.

The involvement of Mr. Soros and of Richard Mellon Scaife, a kind of counterpart on the right wing, in politics is motivated by principle and ideology, not by greed. But restrictions on campaign contributions were adopted in substantial part to keep the ultrarich from having a disproportionate influence on elections, whatever their motivations.

Mr. Soros and other left-wing fat cats are applying a tourniquet to a wound Democrats inflicted upon themselves when they passed McCain-Feingold in March 2002.

The primary purpose of McCain-Feingold was to bar so-called “soft money” contributions to political parties from special interest groups and wealthy individuals. Democrats voted for the bill without reflecting that their party was much more dependent on “soft money” than Republicans were. Republicans have a large number of relatively small donors. Democrats relied on donations from special-interest groups and a few very wealthy individuals to compensate for their smaller donor base.

Compounding the damage Democrats did to themselves is the provision in the McCain-Feingold law that raised to $2,000 from $1,000 the maximum a single individual may donate to a candidate.

While this increase was just and long overdue — it had not been adjusted for inflation since the ceiling was imposed in 1976 — it magnified the advantage Republicans gain from their much larger list of individual donors. Had the old restrictions remained in place, Mr. Bush likely could not approach his goal of $200 million in contributions.

Election reform is dying because of misplaced emphasis, and the tendency of liberals to overregulate.

The problem with our elections is not that too much money is spent on them. We spend more advertising beer and junk food. The problem is where the money comes from, and the strings that are attached to it.

Restrictions should be placed on special-interest group contributions, and on the size of individual contributions, not to hold down election spending, but to keep candidates from being beholden to special interests, and to keep a handful of very wealthy individuals like George Soros from having a disproportionate influence on the outcome of elections.

Because there is no constitutional way to restrict the amounts motivated millionaires like Mr. Soros or Richard Mellon Scaife can spend on “independent” advertising or get-out-the-vote operations, higher spending by candidates and parties is more beneficial to democracy than lower since it dilutes the impact such billionaires can have.

McCain-Feingold hasn’t taken special-interest money out of politics, as it promised. Instead, it has increased the importance of special-interest money, and diminished accountability. Bad campaign finance reform is worse than no campaign finance reform at all.

Jack Kelly, a syndicated columnist, is a former Marine and Green Beret and a former deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force in the Reagan administration. He is national security writer for the Pittsburgh (Pa.) Post-Gazette.

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