William Raspberry has a surprisingly rational column on campaign finance in today's Washington Post. He comes awfully close to acknowledging that reform (as most reformers imagine it) is essentially a pipe-dream. It goes something like this: The political decisions that govern our lives are important to a lot of people. Therefore people are going to seek to influence elections so that good people are elected. We have ways of exercising that influence legitimately - like making campaign donations and financing issue ads. But if you take away the ability of people to make honorable efforts to advance their political ideas in the open, you end up with people who are either barred for meaningful political participation or who resort to shady, under the table tactics (an example of which, taken from the recent New Orleans mayoral race, can be round in Rob Walker's "Letter from New Orleans" column for The New Republic).
In Raspberry's own words:
"Campaign finance reform ... is an attempt to reconcile two conflicting ideas. We want our democracy in the hands of the people, but we also want our candidates and our parties to win. The former conjures up visions of volunteers in ramshackle offices, stuffing envelopes and making phone calls on behalf of their candidates. The latter -- certainly in national and statewide elections -- necessitates TV ads, polling, issues research and other things that cost a pile of money. Politicians have turned to those who can produce the money -- PACs, unions, lobbyists and well-endowed special interests ... ."
It's interesting that even as he recognizes the conflict between the desire for reform and the need to actually finance campaigns, he falls into a cliche-ridden trap. Any effort that can cast itself as grassroots must look like Raspberry's ramshackle office - volunteers stuffing presumably donated envelopes and making democratic phone calls. Low budgets = moral virtue. "TV ads, polling, and issues research," on the other hand are the kind of things that are in the hands of the special interests. Anything that is expensive must be financed by a shadowy group bent on screwing over the rest of the country for its own private gain. It never seems to enter anyone's mind that even big money can come from people of good faith who want to improve their country. Oh well - if a columnist like Raspberry can come halfway, we may be in a better place than I thought.