WILL THE McCain-Feingold bill lead to more fundamental democratic reform? Getting rid of unlimited soft-money donations, after all, is only a baby step toward the full reclaiming of our democracy. A next logical step would be public financing of elections.
Four states have recently enacted clean election public-financing systems via citizen ballot initiatives, largely freeing state candidates from the need to fund-raise.
Even with McCain-Feingold, well-to-do people will be able to contribute as much as $37,000 per election cycle. Money will still speak louder than votes, and a politics dominated by moneyed interests depresses everybody else's taste to become engaged.
These clean-money reforms may seem bloodless, good-government causes. In reality, they have an intimate connection to who gets elected and which public concerns get attention. Without money dominating politics, would a repeal of the tax on estates (paid by only the richest two percent) be taken seriously? If big donors did not dominate politics, wouldn't secure health coverage be a higher priority for politicians?
An even bigger step would be ballot reforms to make sure that every potential voter can readily vote, that every vote will be accurately counted, and that a presidential election will never again be stolen.
It's too early to tell whether the McCain-Feingold enterprise will blossom into more fundamental democratic reform. One encouraging sign is that the Senate debate has been that rarest of events, an unscripted, occasionally uplifting conversation about the public good, and even a somewhat bipartisan one.
For the most part, the narrow reform majority coalition is made up of just two Republicans, John McCain of Arizona and Thad Cochran of Missisippi - and 48 or 49 Senate Democrats. But on key amendments, several conservative Democrats have deserted, to be replaced by such moderate Republicans as Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine (where electoral reform is a big issue), Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, and Arlen Spector of Pennsylvania.
In this respect, the drive to keep money from swamping democracy is reminiscent of other great, at least partly bipartisan, crusades to enlarge democracy. The civil rights movement of the 1960s led to landmark laws guaranteeing basic rights to black Americans. Lyndon Johnson and most northern Democrats spearheaded this effort. White southern Democrats in Congress mostly resisted, and many northern Republicans lent their support.
The movement to extend voting rights to women, early in the last century, was bipartisan. Likewise the movement to bring rights to the disabled, near the century's end. But at the same time, most politics is necessarily partisan. One party embraces a cause, and the other resists it. Despite occasional Republican help, civil rights recently has been championed mainly by Democrats. That's why black voters supported Al Gore by margins of 10 to 1.
If you want to see the limits of pro-democracy bipartisanship, look at the stalled effort to protect and expand the franchise in the wake of the stolen 2000 election. This past week, Republicans in the House resisted the establishment of a bipartisan Select Committee on Election Reform.
This is hardly a surprise. Such a panel would have to confront what happened in Florida. It would find, among other things, that Florida's secretary of state, Katherine Harris, hired a private, Republican-affiliated company to purge the rolls of 400,000 supposed former felons, half of them African-American. In fact, many thousands of them were legally entitled to vote.
Why would Republicans want to revisit the scene of the crime?
There are some easy first steps toward electoral reform. Congress could pass a federal law giving financial incentives to states that established modern and consistent balloting systems. Congress could legislate an Election Day holiday - a Democracy Day, as well as Election Day registration. In the six states that allow registration on Election Day, turnout is more than 61 percent, compared with 51 percent nationally.
But someone needs to champion this cause. Paradoxically, it is easier to ignite a pro-democracy movement in a nondemocratic country, as the citizens of Poland, Czechoslovakia, South African, and most recently Serbia have shown. In America, where the rituals of democracy persist, its substance is hollowed, and there is little sign of mass indignation.
As the party wronged by the great electoral larceny of 2000, the Democrats should be the natural leaders of this effort. But John McCain, curiously, is the man of the hour. If McCain sticks to his guns, he could emerge as a latter-day Teddy Roosevelt - a Bull Moose of true reform and a necessary embarrassment to his own party.
Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect.
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