Bush's impressive fund-raising just sign of democracy at work

July 29, 1999|By George F. Will

WASHINGTON -- Polls, complains a witty curmudgeon (Barbara Holland, an essayist writing from her redoubt in rural Virginia), have "done for elections what amniocentesis did for pregnancy -- stolen the surprise."

Similar complaints are now heard concerning Texas Gov. George W. Bush's fund-raising success which, complainers say, has drained the drama from the Republican presidential contest.

The subtext of this complaining is that what Mr. Bush has accomplished short-circuits or otherwise affronts democracy. Actually, Mr. Bush's fund-raising is evidence of democratic vitality and dramatizes the anti-democratic confusion behind most campaign finance "reforms."

The most impressive eruption of popular participation in presidential politics since World War II occurred in 1968, and liberals will be chagrined to learn that it was not the anti-war insurgency of Minnesota Sen. Eugene McCarthy in Democratic primaries that helped precipitate the withdrawal of President Lyndon Johnson.

The most remarkably broad-based involvement in presidential politics was the drive that placed Alabama's Gov. George Wallace on all 50 state ballots, when impediments to ballot access for third parties were much more onerous than they are today.

To get on California's ballot, Wallace supporters had to get 66,000 signatures -- not a daunting total, but they had to get them in 1967, and all signatories had to fill out a two-page legal-size form to register as members of Wallace's new party. More than 100,000 did.

Ohio required Wallace supporters to gather the absurd number of 433,000 signatures -- in 10 weeks. When his supporters surpassed that total by perhaps 100,000, an Ohio court ruled that Wallace's American Independent Party was a "fictional party." Real parties, the court opined, develop not from the top down but from the bottom up -- which was exactly what was happening. Wallace stopped execrating the U.S. Supreme Court long enough to appeal to it, and it ordered Ohio to put him on the ballot.

Not a progressive cause

The continent-wide combustion of the Wallace movement has not been given due respect, largely because it refutes the intelligentsia's assumption that democratic vitality must coincide with "progressive" causes.

And now comes another affront to liberal paradigms: The second-most remarkable postwar instance of participatory politics in presidential campaigning is the continuing fund raising that has emancipated Mr. Bush from federal laws designed to restrict political participation.

Comically oxymoronic descriptions of Mr. Bush's success spring to mind. It is the insurgency of the establishment, the incandescence of the comfortable, the oppressed rattling their tennis bracelets rather than their chains. Amusing. But if Vice President Al Gore could be made more sober, a sobering fact would be this:

By now, some 80,000 contributors have given about $40 million to Mr. Bush. As of the last reporting date, June 30, the average contribution was $466.69. Most give the maximum that has been permitted since 1974, $1,000. If that limit had been indexed for inflation, then the limit would be today $3,306.

Of the approximately 460,000 individuals who have contributed to the Republican National Committee so far this year, almost 70,000 are first-time contributors and another 42,000 have resumed contributing after abstaining for three or more years. In 1997, the last nonelection year, RNC contributors totaled just 119,715.

In the good old days, in 1888, about 40 percent of Republican national campaign funds came from businesses in one state, Pennsylvania. In 1904, corporate contributions were 73 percent of Theodore Roosevelt's funds. Two sympathetic tycoons provided three-quarters of the Democrats' 1904 presidential funds.

Participating in politics by contributing money is not generally a vice, it is good citizenship. Some of those who have difficulty attracting contributors say contributing is somehow a less seemly, less noble way of participating in politics than, say, giving time or labor. But money embodies time spent working; money is congealed labor.

Boom times

Parties and candidates at all levels are raising money in unusual quantities. This is partly a wholesome consequence of unusual economic conditions: The gross domestic product was $1.4 trillion when the $1,000 limit was set in 1974. It is almost $9 trillion today. In a healthy democracy, individuals should spend more of their personal surpluses on politics.

In the 1995-96 election cycle, Americans spent $675 million on presidential politics; in 1997, they spent $8 billion on pornography. But, then, in the past quarter-century, pornography has been deregulated, whereas spending on political expression has been enveloped in regulations.

Mr. Bush's fund-raising enables him to forgo federal matching funds, and the speech rationing they entail. So taxpayers who do not support him will not see tax dollars spent to support him, and he will not be restricted to the government-approved amounts of political communication -- just $1.13 million of it in Iowa and $661,200 worth in New Hampshire.

Campaign finance "reformers" are scandalized, another sign of national health.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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