Monday, May 19, 2003

The price of reform. Campaign-finance reform is one of those things that always sounds good in theory. Media Log is not immune to its charms, and in fact continues to be steamed at House Speaker Tom Finneran for his unrelenting campaign to nullify the state's voter-approved Clean Elections Law.

Even so, it's easy to exaggerate the benefits of reform and to play down the unintended negatives. Two examples from this morning's Globe.

On page one, Raphael Lewis reports that Governor Mitt Romney has been accepting campaign contributions from executives at corporations that have business pending before the state, including Fidelity (which would love to keep that mid-'90s tax break), the law firm of Mintz Levin, and EMC Corporation. (To be fair, it sounds like EMC's state ties are pretty tenuous, although founder Richard Egan is involved in the Pioneer Institute, a Romney-friendly think tank.)

That news is broken up by this howler:

Romney ... has pledged to accept no political action committee money, said spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom.

Now, I'm prepared to believe that Romney isn't going to let his decision-making be influenced by campaign donations. I really am. But as Lewis's story shows, political-action-committee money has been fetishized by reform advocates as pernicious in ways that ordinary contributions are not. Yet how does Romney expect to impress anyone with his no-PAC-money stance when he's taking money that is every bit as tied to special interests?

There's nothing unique in what Romney is doing. The PAC-money-bad/special-interest-donations-okay hypocrisy has become standard for any politician looking to boost his campaign account while making googly eyes at reformers. Still, no one should be impressed.

The second story, which appears on page three, concerns those boneheaded attack ads aimed at moderate Republicans such as Maine senator Olympia Snowe and Ohio senator George Voinovich, who have been singled out for insufficient loyalty to George W. Bush's radical tax-cutting agenda.

Bush's chief campaign strategist, Karl Rove, is quoted as calling the ads "stupid and counterproductive and not helpful," which they surely are. But illegal? Could be, given a prohibition on certain types of advocacy-group ads that mention elected officials or political candidates by name.

The ads are sponsored by the Republican-libertarian Club for Growth. The club's president, Stephen Moore, tells Globe reporter Nicolas Thompson that complaints that his group's ads are illegal "are pretty frightening from a free-speech perspective."

Thus does Moore show a far better grasp of the First Amendment than he has of politics.

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