Taking Money Insurgents Out of Politics


Here's David Kurtz at the liberal site Talking Points Memo:

You may have heard that Larry Kudlow, the former Reagan economic adviser, diehard supply-sider, and CNBC host, is considering running against Chuck Schumer for U.S. Senate from New York.

How can Kudlow hope to match the fund-raising prowess of the incumbent Schumer? Thanks to the Supreme Court's decision on corporate contributions in the Citizens United case, we got it covered, a top Kudlow supporter and pal tells TPMDC.

"People who are worried about their taxes, particularly medium- and large-size businesses, would be more interested in helping Larry Kudlow than Chuck Schumer," John Lakian says.

Kurtz doesn't explicitly say that a well-funded pro-Kudlow ad campaign would be a bad thing. But last I checked, he didn't like the way Citizens United came out, so—unless I missed a subsequent post in which he reversed his stance—I figure he considers this a reason to regret the ruling. But why? If the effect of the Court's decision is to make a race more competitive, so that even a powerful politician with a potent fundraising machine has to watch his back, doesn't that mean the system is now more rather than less democratic?

Set aside whether you like Kudlow better than Schumer. (In another context, after all, the upstart candidate could emerge from the incumbent's left rather than his right. The most famous example came in 1968, when a few wealthy antiwar donors fueled Eugene McCarthy's challenge to Lyndon Johnson.) Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce, the precedent that Citizens United overturned, dates back to 1990. If anyone has made the case that corporate influence in D.C. declined in the two decades while Austin was the law of the land, please point me to the argument, because I haven't seen it. What I have seen is a system that favors those who already have pull in Washington and who are better able to navigate a complex set of campaign finance regulations. If Citizens United means elections are now more open to outsiders, that's a reason to celebrate, not to mourn.

Incidentally, there are ways to open up elections still further that would reduce rather than raise the role of money in politics. When local governments consolidate or when a city moves from ward-based elections to a council whose members are elected at-large, the increase in the size of the electorate means it's harder to rely on door-to-door canvassing, making campaign ads (and, thus, campaign war chests) more important. It therefore stands to reason that you could make money less important and encourage more grassroots organizing by reversing the process and breaking up those jurisdictions, an idea that could be applied to congressional elections by having more and smaller districts. Yet that hardly ever comes up as a proposal when campaign reformers make their pitches. Interesting, no?