Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Ambrose's Nixon: Ruin and Recovery 11

On pages 310-311 of Nixon: Ruin and Recovery, 1973-1990, Stephen Ambrose discusses President Richard Nixon's 1974 plan for campaign finance reform:

"In a radio address, he recommended more detailed financial disclosures, sharp limits on what individual contributors could give (no more than $3,000 for a congressional campaign, $15,000 for a presidential candidate), a severe curb on the flow of cash (any contribution of more than $50 would have to be by check, and disclosed), reform of campaign practices (no more dirty tricks), and shortened presidential campaigns (primaries in the summer, nominating conventions in September).  Nixon's proposals were, for the most part, welcome to the Democrats, while the Republican leaders indicated that they disagreed with every one of them, except Nixon's rejection of public financing of campaigns.  That was the one the Democrats wanted.  Nixon said it was 'taxation without representation,' because it 'would take your money----no matter what your political preference----and distribute it to candidates for whom your voluntary support might be withheld.'  Finally, Nixon proposed to reduce the number of campaigns by passing a constitutional amendment that would change House of Representatives terms from two to four years, and presidential terms from four to six, with a one-term limit."

As Ambrose says, "Nixon presented himself rather improbably as the leader of campaign finance reform."  Campaign finance, after all, was an area in which Nixon was long controversial.  Nixon's detractors claim that Nixon had loads of money from wealthy donors in his 1946 campaign for the U.S. House, and in his 1950 campaign for U.S. Senate.  Irwin Gellman in The Contender attempts to defend Nixon from the charge that he had loads of money in 1946, but, when talking about 1950, Gellman essentially says that we don't know how much Nixon's campaign had (though Gellman doesn't think it's as much as certain detractors say), since campaign finance laws back then had loopholes, and candidates did not report the full amount that they spent.  Regarding critiques of Nixon's approach as President to campaign finance, see my post here, where I summarized Democrat Jerry Voorhis' criticisms of Nixon on this issue.

Nixon may have been touting campaign finance reform in 1974 to divert public attention from Watergate.  Or perhaps the message that he wanted to communicate was that the focus should be on reforming the system rather than hypocritically attacking him for things that a number of other politicians did as well.  In any case, my impression from Ambrose is that Nixon's proposal for campaign finance proposal went over like a lead balloon.  Nixon got some support for it, but Ambrose narrates that Nixon did not prepare the public for his proposal: his idea came out of the blue, like so many other Nixon ideas.  As a result, his idea "was buried on the back pages and quickly forgotten" (page 311).

Nixon's proposals look pretty good, but I wouldn't treat them as a large-scale panacea.  I think it's good for donations above a certain amount to be disclosed to the public, so that the public can know what special interests are supporting which candidates.  At the same time, nowadays, it seems that we can easily find out what special interests give money to which candidates, and the system is still beholden to special interests.  Nixon's idea to lengthen the term for a U.S. Representative makes sense, for U.S. Representatives become dependent on special interests when they have to campaign to keep their office every two years, and thus need donations for their campaign.  See this article.  Yet, U.S. Senators have six-year terms, and the U.S. Senate is not insulated from a desire to appease special interests.

An idea that could conceivably bring about significant reform is the very one that Nixon rejected: public financing of campaigns.  Just take private donations out of campaigns altogether, so politicians aren't dependent on special interests for their campaign cash.  Nixon makes a good point that this would be taxation without representation----that people would be giving money to candidates they may not support.  It's not ideal, in my opinion, but it's better than politicians being beholden to what the special interests want, especially when what the special interests want benefit the special interests rather than most Americans.

I'm not sure how to evaluate Nixon's proposal for a short presidential primary season.  It could reduce the need for candidates to raise large sums of money, which is a good thing.  On the other hand, I can envision it privileging well-established candidates and taking away whatever shot underdogs might have.  If underdogs don't have the time to build their own reputation and get the word out about their campaigns, as a long primary season would give them, then they are at a disadvantage, and those who are better known and part of the establishment would be more likely to win.

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