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John McCain And The Curse Of Reform

Commentary

John McCain has been roundly vilified for running a television ad comparing Barack Obama's celebrity to the likes of Paris Hilton and Britney Spears.

I'm not sure why this ad is any worse than the other bits of video nano-marketing that masquerade as political discourse in our presidential campaigns. But I do know that McCain needed to run the ad because of a monster made of good intentions, a monster that McCain has championed more than any politician of his generation. It is called campaign finance reform.

The story of modern campaign finance reform is one of unintended consequences. The unhappy and unexpected ending has been that politicians put way too much of their time, energy and spirit into campaigning, not governing. Campaigning in the television age has become a form of marketing. The ultimate marketing tool is celebrity. Now McCain is worried that celebrity will do him in.

John McCain, reformer, is trying to disarm Barack Obama's charisma and, yes, celebrity by self-consciously mocking it in a campaign ad. McCain, a war hero and aspirant for the highest office in the nation, wittingly took on the chore normally done by comedians, satirists and ornery columnists: calling out the irony of the stuff we see on television.

The ultimate irony may be that this little post-modern campaign stunt serves only to make the whole flock of office-seekers seem punier, including McCain.

Let's back up.

Modern political reform was a reaction to guys like Richard Nixon, Bebe Rebozo, John Mitchell and Maurice Stans. After the antics of Watergate and Nixon's 1972 Committee to Re-elect the President (CREEP), reformers decided they needed to limit how much any individual, corporation, labor union, interest group or, importantly, political party could give to a candidate. The basic idea, which has only been tinkered with over the ensuing 30 years, was to insist that campaign contributions come only in relatively small amounts. No more million-dollar checks.

But in the absence of public financing, influence seekers will find ways to get funds to office seekers. That is a matter of human nature and, according the Supreme Court, a constitutional right of free speech. (Speech apparently equals money.) So most of the post-Watergate campaign scandals have involved tricky ways to give candidates big pots of money made up of small chunks of money: bundling, 527s, soft money, PACs, independent expenditures and so forth.

The ultimate loser in all this was unexpected: the political parties.

After Watergate, party bosses couldn't cut off the taps to a pol they disliked. Candidates could go around the party machines to raise money and assemble organizations. It was every hack for himself or herself. Candidates became free agents, independent of parties. If you could raise your own dough, you were good to go.

But without party organizations, candidates needed to find people who could run campaigns, professionals who know how to get out the vote, find movers and shakers and, most importantly, cut TV spots. Into this void came the political consultants.

Before 1968, hired-gun consultants were fairly rare. Since then, they have become politically ubiquitous. Their specialty is political marketing. Their techniques are not different in any essential ways from the marketing of soft drinks, prescription drugs, beer or adult diapers.

Further, without party organizations to guide voters, candidates needed to go directly to them. Television was the most effective route. Paid media — advertising — became the currency of campaigning. Free media — press coverage — became a subset of political marketing.

Marketing costs a lot of money. And raising that money in relatively small chunks, whether they are bundled or not, takes a lot of time. The major complaint of virtually every politician seriously interested in governing over the past 30 years has been that they have to waste too much of their time and dignity on fundraising. Raising money is easy for only two kinds of politician: the very powerful and the very popular.

McCain has tilted at campaign fundraising windmills his whole career, just as he has fought the black arts of pork barrel corruption. It is integral to his public integrity. But it is also something that has haunted McCain's career in weird ways.

McCain was the lone Republican in a little-remembered band of scandalistas called the Keating Five. His involvement was unsavory though brief and inconsequential, unlike that of the four Democrats. McCain was the token Republican, a scapegoat.

Now every time a reporter finds that somebody with a tie to McCain has committed an act of lobbying, it's a semistory.

And now McCain is claiming to be a victim of the kind of political marketing that the demise of party power gave rise to.

America in the past two centuries has turned many nobodies into political heroes in quick time. But in the television era, no politician has remained a hero for very long. No one has a clue what will happen with Barack Obama. With his sophomoric, cutesy new television ad, John McCain tried to diminish Barack Obama. But he has done much more to diminish John McCain.

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