In yet another way this election year has become an exercise in the unexpected, Democrats are attracting far more big-dollar donations than Republicans. If that isn’t unusual enough, their success is a consequence of a Supreme Court decision they had excoriated. In that, they will face a test of character: Will they continue to demand fundraising reforms despite the benefits the ruling has provided them? They should.
This wasn’t how most observers expected the 2014 ruling, McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, to play out. The conventional wisdom was that it would play to the strengths of Republicans and their supply of wealthy donors, putting Democrats at a disadvantage.
It didn’t work out that way. Underfunded just a year ago, the Democratic Party has directed nearly $30 million to key states in recent months, based in large part on six-figure donations by wealthy supporters such as film director James Cameron, retired hedge fund manager George Soros and members of the billionaire Pritzker family.
Republicans, meanwhile, have sent only $11 million to battleground states. It’s a startling discrepancy, and one that could hurt Republicans in this anomalous election cycle, dominated by the party’s presidential nominee, Donald Trump.
Indeed, Trump’s influence makes it difficult to draw firm conclusions about the impact of the court’s ruling. Many wealthy and previously reliable Republican donors have refused to pony up for Trump, whose positions on any given topic are subject to the whim of the moment and are frequently not at all conservative. Had Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, John Kasich or some other Republican won the nomination, it’s hard to believe the money wouldn’t be flowing more freely.
Nevertheless, the ruling and the practice of giving over the success of a campaign to wealthy donors is a corruption of democracy. As Trump himself has acknowledged, when you give a lot of money, you and your needs get attention.
The court’s decision upended a Watergate-era reform that limited the total amount an individual could donate to all federal candidates and parties in an election cycle. Relying on the specious “money-is-speech” theory, the court ruled that the law infringed on Americans’ First Amendment rights.
But if money is speech, then microphones are noise. Money can amplify speech, making it more easily heard, but it is not speech and there is no constitutional right to be heard. The First Amendment is abundantly clear about the rights it protects: speech, the press and religion. Those are inviolate. If money had been intended to be included, the wise men who drafted this amendment would surely have included it.
That they didn’t speaks volumes, yet the court has inflicted that convolution on the nation, making it difficult for average Americans to influence the direction of government. With the McCutcheon ruling, wealthy donors became the squeaky wheel.
Nevertheless, it is Congress’ job to look for appropriate ways to rein in the influence of money and, eventually, for the Supreme Court to rethink its error. In the meantime, there is little to criticize regarding either party’s pursuit of such donors. Each party is going to do what is allowed (sometimes more) and neither can be expected to cede a legal advantage to the other.
We need rules and, despite the advantages McCutcheon may give one party or the other, election campaigns cannot devolve into the political equivalent of the Wild West.