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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

The How of Fixing Campaign Finance Abuse

Of all of the gaps between public opinion and political action, none are more frustrating — or harmful to America — than that between overwhelming public support for campaign finance reform and the failure of congress and the U.S. Supreme Court to take corrective action. The most recent in-your-face example would be the McCutcheon decision, in which Chief Justice Roberts delivered yet another tortured rationale for why we should let billionaires buy elections.
While there is widespread agreement among everyday people about what should be done to democratize campaign finance reform: set reasonable limits, the question of how to get it done in the current climate of knee-jerk GOP obstruction cries out for some creative ideas. Josh Silver, director of Represent.Us, has a plan that merits consideration. As he writes at HuffPo:

If you have a heartbeat, you are one of the vast majority of Americans thoroughly disgusted by this week’s McCutcheon Supreme Court decision. It allows one donor to write a $3.6 million check to buy political influence, providing us all with yet another “just-when-you-thought-it-couldn’t-get-any-worse” moment. As if we needed it.
…But don’t give up just yet. Contrary to popular belief, the money in politics problem can be fixed by emulating the stunning successes of marriage equality and marijuana decriminalization over the past twenty years. Here’s how to do it.
First, we need to take the fight to local communities, by passing city and statewide reform initiatives. For too long, reformers have advocated small-step, incremental reforms at the federal level, such as ending secret donations. This is a good and popular proposal, but alone will not come close to fixing the problem. Other reformers are advocating “publicly funded” elections, which is also good policy, but remains unpopular with many voters and would not fix the entire problem if passed without simultaneous ethics, lobbying and transparency reforms.
And here’s the key thing: proposals that overhaul ethics, lobbying, transparency and public funding in one fell swoop enjoy over 80% voter approval, and they are constitutional, even under the current Supreme Court. Together they are much more popular than public funding alone, and far more palatable to moderates and conservatives to boot. As an added bonus, public funds created by statewide laws can go towards federal candidates from those states, and to judicial candidates in states that have them. In the words of one veteran pollster, “with these kinds of numbers, it’s virtually impossible to lose a ballot initiative.”

Makes sense. In some states at least, it should be possible for such reforms to gain traction. Create a few state campaign finance reform templates that are so compelling that neighboring states will eventually have to reckon with them, and maybe, just maybe start a prairie fire.
Silver also suggests that reform advocates “stop talking about “money, democracy and campaign finance,” and start talking about corruption.” He cites a December poll indicating ‘off the charts’ support “for stopping the undue influence of “corruption” in politics rather than “money,” even among conservatives. Silver continues,

It is time to move from defense to offense, and pass a wave of local anti-corruption laws across the nation over the next few years — while simultaneously organizing a 21st century anti-corruption movement made of grassroots conservatives, moderates and progressives.

It’s an interesting idea, creating a broad, locally-rooted anti-corruption coalition that stretches across the political spectrum (as much as possible). As Silver concludes, “It is the combination of passing bold reforms in cities and states, while creating a loud and visible, right-left anti-corruption movement that will provide the political power necessary to force change.”

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