Huckabee rightly calls out McCain

Pols and pundits enamored by two presidential frontrunners inside the Beltway, namely Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), are ignoring the competitive advantages that governors and other non-senators have enjoyed in recent decades. If you are looking for better odds in 2008, think about someone like outgoing Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a rising star in conservative Republican circles.

Pols and pundits enamored by two presidential frontrunners inside the Beltway, namely Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), are ignoring the competitive advantages that governors and other non-senators have enjoyed in recent decades. If you are looking for better odds in 2008, think about someone like outgoing Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a rising star in conservative Republican circles.

Huckabee gave us a reason to pay attention recently when he took on the issue of campaign finance reform. This could be a key to derailing McCain’s straight-to-the-nomination express train. Huckabee called out the Arizonan for fashioning a “reformed” system that allows senators like McCain (and Clinton) to transfer money from Senate committees to presidential efforts. Meanwhile, governors like Huckabee can’t move their state funds into federal accounts.

The federal funds transfer loophole is only one of the defects of the system that McCain and his liberal partner Russ Feingold fashioned. And it’s not even the worst. Much bigger deficiencies can be found in the unreasonably low limits on individual contributions and the incentives the system has provided for proliferating 527 and 501(c) expenditures. And then there’s that stupid rule that wastes everyone’s time and money by having the candidate approve his message on camera. Can someone please get rid of that silly and useless gimmick?

The supposedly “new and better” system has made many candidates’ own committees minor players in their own bids for election, resulted in less accountability by campaigns to the electorate, and made the central party committees weaker. The only winners under McCain-Feingold have been a few big donors that like to operate in the shadowy world of 527s and 501(c) committees and a few consultants that get more work in the decentralized, fragmented system that has taken over.

You cannot argue that voters are better informed under this system. The low caps on individuals’ contributions to the actual candidates severely limit candidates’ own abilities to communicate directly with voters. And you can’t argue that political or financial accountability is enhanced, either. Many of the messages urging election or defeat aren’t from either candidate’s campaign. And we don’t have any idea who’s really paying for many of these shadow-world ads. But meanwhile, our federal candidates dumbly reassure us that “I approve this message.”

The people who devised this system obviously were playing to the “campaign reform” crowd, not fashioning a functional system that works in the real world. Once McCain gets his own presidential effort up and running, I guarantee you he won’t like it when several unrelated committees simultaneously start “messaging” on his behalf, without coordination from John Weaver and McCain’s other handlers. McCain strikes me as a controlling candidate who won’t welcome “assistance” from people operating in the shadows that necessarily cloak 527 and 501(c) para-campaigns.

Reforming the failed reforms of campaigns should be an ideal platform for the much ballyhooed “bi-partisan cooperation” everyone seems to want. We know that the present rules help special interests operate with less scrutiny. Huckabee gets it right when he calls for more openness and disclosure rather than unreasonably low contribution limits.

“The less we prohibit and the more we disclose, the safer the American people are,” said Gov. Huckabee. “When you have a system that says you can’t give to candidates except this much, but you can give to this independent group in unlimited amounts, guess where the money goes? It goes to the independent entity.”

Clear thinking like that should not go unrewarded. If we must have a Democratic majority, then let them try to embarrass John McCain by reversing his silly, unworkable and self-serving campaign finance rules.

Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for GOP candidates and causes since 1988.