By the time we’ve reached the third state in the Republican primary process and are witnessing the umpteenth debate, expectations for hearing something novel at one of these forums are pretty low. A debate at this stage might be best compared to a NASCAR race — in which a sizable segment of the audience is watching in case there’s a wreck — or a heavyweight boxing match — in which many viewers are hoping to see one guy deliver a knockout blow to another.
Nevertheless, Monday night’s debate in Myrtle Beach was notable for two moments. One came when debate panelist Juan Williams asked Newt Gingrich if he could see that Gingrich’s past comments about work ethic and food stamps are “viewed, at a minimum, as insulting to all Americans, but particularly to black Americans,” and the former speaker responded with a flat “No” — and proceeded to rip apart the meme bit by bit:
The other one came after a verbal brawl among the candidates about the charges leveled by various candidates’ “super PACs” toward other candidates. Mitt Romney suggested the problem lies with the campaign-finance laws that led to the creation of super PACs in the first place:
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.
DEBATE MODERATOR BRET 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 allowed 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.
Now, many observers are skeptical about the actual lack of coordination between campaigns and super PACs and believe the Chinese wall is more like a leaky dike without the little Dutch boy. But we are only having this discussion about whether campaigns talk to super PACs because the effort to “get the money out of politics” only led to less accountability. Romney is right: It would be better to eliminate, or at least raise, the government-imposed limits on contributions; have clear and immediate transparency about contributions; let candidates defend their decisions to take money from whoever is giving it to them; and let voters make up their minds.
P.S. – At this point, some of you will ask why I take this position on campaign finance while advocating a limit on gifts from lobbyists to our state legislators. Let me explain, briefly.
As the Supreme Court recognizes, contributions to candidates are a manifestation of political speech, which in our political system must be protected vigilantly. And as Richard Cohen details well, campaign contributions are sometimes the best, or only, way for those opposed to the current political leaders to bring about a change. (One problem with moving totally toward public financing of campaigns is that, in the name of not wasting taxpayer dollars, there inevitably will be thresholds of support that candidates must clear to qualify for public funds — and history teaches us that elected officials set such thresholds to minimize competition, not increase it.)
Political campaigns cost money to run, and it is appropriate that Americans be able to help finance the campaign of a candidate they support. While some people — including, it seems, Romney — support eliminating limits completely, it strikes me as more prudent to increase the limit first and, after examining the results, determine whether it makes sense to keep moving in that direction.
Lawmaking, on the other hand, does not require financial contributions, particularly ones that come in the form of dinners, tickets to sporting events and concerts, or travel. In the vast majority of cases, there is no reason a lobbyist can’t communicate the same point about legislation without buying something for the legislator. For those cases when circumstances dictate otherwise, modest expenses covered by a cap of perhaps $100 should suffice to avoid incriminating people unnecessarily. And I am open to discussion about where the limit should be set in order to minimize such unnecessary problems and to avoid creating new problems as much as is practical.
(Note that we are not talking about the right of a person, group or company to spend money to hire people and pay those employees’ expenses to make said point. That, not gifts, would be the appropriate analogy to campaign contributions when it comes to political speech; lobbying per se is not a problem.)
– By Kyle Wingfield