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Welcome to STop, the Seattle Times Opinion blog where our editorial writers and editors share their evolving thoughts on a variety of issues. STop is a place where opinion writers and readers can exchange views and readers can learn more about how editorial positions are formed.

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December 15, 2005

No More Gene McCarthys

The death of Eugene McCarthy reminds us of what this man did: he ran a political campaign that brought down a sitting president of his own party. The event occurred in the New Hampshire primary of 1968. McCarthy, a Democrat opposed to the war policy of Lyndon Johnson, did not win the primary, but he did so well that it convinced Johnson not to run. McCarthy "lost the battle but won the war."

A number of persons and things made that possible. That included the persons who wrote big checks to McCarthy, giving him money to put his messages on radio and TV, and the institutional rules that allowed the McCarthy campaign to accept big checks. John Samples of the Cato Institute writes (click here for his article) that McCarthy was able to do it only because there were no modern campaign-finance laws:

About one-third of McCarthy's total fundraising in 1968 came from just 50 large donors. David Hoeh, the organizer of McCarthy's New Hampshire campaign, recalled later that a single "financial angel" saved their media effort at a crucial point.

The laws limiting campaign donations to small amounts make it more difficult to challenge an incumbent. The law does not apply to candidates donating money to themselves--which is why we have a gaggle of rich senators, such as John Cornyn (D-N.J.). Our own Maria Cantwell, Democrat, made a pile in a dot-com and parlayed that money into a senate sat. The Republican who now runs against her, Mike McGavick, is also wealthy. I don't know how much he plans to pay for his own campaign. Under the campaign finance law you can still bankroll your own campaign. You can no longer bankroll someone else's campaign--which is a rule that protects incumbents. Of course it was written by incumbents, who knew what effect it would have.

Campaign-finance laws reduce the political choices of Americans. For example, in 1948 there were four candidates for president: Truman, the Democrat;Thurmond, the Dixiecrat; Dewey, the Republican; and Henry Wallace, the Progressive. Wallace had been vice-president under Roosevelt, and if the Democratic pols hadn't booted him from the ticket in 1944 because he was too left-wing (and a bit kooky), he would have been president when Roosevelt died in 1945. At the end of WWII, when the Soviets stopped being our glorious allies, Wallace wanted to give them the secret of the atom bomb. In 1948 he ran a campaign of friendship with the U.S.S.R. and no Cold War, and a socialistic policy at home. His candidacy was made possible by a $100,000 donation from Anita McCormick Blaine, heiress to the International Harvester fortune.

People in power always have money. Essentially, they can extort it, though few call it that. Challengers like Henry Wallace and Gene McCarthy are the ones that need private, ideologically motivated money. If they get it, sometimes they can do great things. McCarthy did, in a way that has since been made illegal.

Respond to Bruce.

 
Posted by Bruce Ramsey at December 15, 2005 10:12 AM



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