A campaign finance penalty flag

It’s football season, so perhaps a gridiron analogy will nicely illustrate the problem. Think of yourself as a middle linebacker trying to set up your 11 defenders as the offense breaks its huddle. Suddenly, just as you have everyone aligned, four more players show up on the other side of the line of scrimmage: another center, quarterback and two more receivers. They even have their own ball and line up on the other side’s hash marks. You motion two of your defenders to watch the new receivers when four more defenders show up on your side of the line of scrimmage. You try to tell them where to align and they shout back, “We’re not allowed to talk.” Then the ball is snapped — both balls, actually — and chaos ensues. There are probably penalties everywhere, but who could tell in the scramble?

I have griped before about this situation, but the nature of my complaint is evolving as the once-hidden consequences of the current campaign finance law are revealed. 

In my football analogy, note that there was no mention of coaches. Well, there are none. Or not any who matter much. Those who wear the title have no resources, no experience, and typically don’t know the game’s finer points. The coaches in this illustration are the political parties. The current campaign finance laws have left the national and state parties — except for the Senate and congressional party committees — in a general state of disarray.

I don’t think this was by design. The architects of today’s campaign finance laws didn’t set out to decimate the parties, but that is what has happened. You may shrug and say that the parties caused their own demise. And you might be right. But the parties are, or have been, a proven element in our democratic scheme. To allow them to wither and be replaced by a system of independent-expenditure (IE) committees is fraught with danger.

Let’s be honest. The big IE operations, like Karl Rove’s Crossroads project or SEIU’s campaign apparatus, are far more organized, competent and effective than most any state party organization that I know of. Better funded, too. The problem is that “we the people” don’t have much play in these IE operations.

Returning to our football game, the original teams on the field are average college players. The four extra players who run onto the field are Tom Brady- and Ray Lewis-level stars, the IE guys. They are bigger and more talented than the 11 regular players, so when they show up they might score despite being outnumbered. But can you count on them showing up? Maybe, or maybe not. The campaign process is important enough that we need the certainty that parties brought to the system. They at least always showed up.

We also need some transparency that is missing in today’s system. We don’t always know who the players are or where they got their scholarships or meal money (and, heaven forbid, some impermissible “extra benefits” like new cars). Openness is more important than imposing limits here. Money will find a way. We just need to see its flow.

Finally, we need a system that is fair and facilitates balanced competition. If Republicans don’t fix this flawed system, the unions are going to exploit their inherent advantages under the rules and elect a lot more Democrats than they did this year. To use a football analogy, there is no parity when the rules systematically favor one special interest. Remember, Tom Brady is an NFLPA union man.

David Hill has been a Republican pollster since 1984. This cycle he is polling for gubernatorial campaigns in four states.