(with Joey Fishkin, University of Texas Law School)
Bob Bauer just offered a thoughtful and engaging commentary on our work and a new report by the Brennan Center, both focused on the relationship between the political parties and campaign finance. We agree with part of Bob’s post and think the rest is plausible—and who knows, he might even be right.
An outsider might find it strange that we’d find a post that is nominally a challenge to our work to be so convincing. But the truth is that none of us can make dependable predictions in the highly volatile world of politics these days. We’re in uncharted territory. For instance, these days no one can even confidently identify which candidate the once-predictable Republican primary electorate is going to choose as a standard bearer—in part because the old rule, which was that the winner will be the establishment candidate with all the hard-money donors, no longer seems to be the rule. Things are changing more quickly than anyone anticipated, and we’re all struggling just to keep up with the latest innovations of this campaign season.
The debate between Bob and us centers on a simple question: what happens if we fund the formal parties in the same way we fund the shadow parties (the SupertPACs and 501(c)(4) and (c)(6) organizations)? Our worry is that if the formal parties’ financing is identical to that of the shadow parties’, this will gradually transform the formal parties into institutions that look more like the shadow parties—hierarchical, almost entirely beholden to big donors—thus seriously eroding what remains of a reasonably pluralistic party system. Bob’s worry, on the other side, is that if we don’t do something to level the playing field between the formal parties and shadow parties, the formal parties don’t have much of a future in politics.
We think Bob may overstate the differences between our positions, though that’s likely due to a failure of exposition on our part. Bob reads us as opposing all change in the way we fund parties. But we are pretty close to where Bob is on these questions. We aren’t ready to go as far as Tom Edsall and lift all restrictions. But, like Bob, we are certainly open to a more robust funding structure, especially one targeted—as the Brennan Center’s report is—at certain type of party activities. At least one of us is ready to support substantial increases in the contribution caps, and both of us favor allowing candidates and parties to work more closely together in raising and spending money. We’re just not ready to reproduce, jot for jot, the funding structure for the parties that we now have for the SuperPACs and 501(c) organizations.
It’s possible that both Bob and the two of us are right, and it’s just as possible that we all are wrong. And therein lies the dilemma for those interested in reform. The two of us are nervous about flipping the switch and letting the parties raise unlimited sums. We thus approach the problem more cautiously than Bob. He seems ready to flip the switch, at least as an experiment. We think it is better to be cautious. To mix our metaphors in an egregious fashion, it’s going to be very hard to put the genie back in the bottle. Once the parties become accustomed to unlimited fundraising, what incentive will they have to regulate themselves? And if donors become accustomed to ruling the official party organizations the way they rule their own shadow party entities, those expectations will become very hard to unwind. Even so, it’s important to give Bob’s proposal its due, and that is this: There are costs to not acting just as there are costs to acting. There are costs to doing too little as well as to doing too much. The formal parties might well wither and die if we don’t find some way to get them the funding to compete. We’re all muddling through, in other words.
Modesty is an underappreciated virtue in academic writing, and our paper had modest aims. We were under no illusions that everyone would be convinced that we were right on the prediction side; we aren’t that certain we are right ourselves. What we wanted to do was spark a different conversation about the future of the political parties, one that wasn’t confined to “strengthening” the parties but that paid attention to the crucial institutional differences between the shadow parties and the formal parties. We wanted, in short, to spark just the conversation that Bob and the Brennan Center and others are now having.