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Thursday, December 18, 2003

Why Ivory Tower Reform is Doomed to Failure
Washington Post columnist David Broder has a column that highlights precisely why the recent reform efforts in Washington, DC are worthless. These reforms were crafted by good government intellectual elites who not only don't understand regular Americans, they disdain them.

In his column, Broder quotes Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institute. Brookings is unarguably the classic ivory tower in America -- a so-called "think tank" that hires scholars to figure out how we should be running the country. Thomas Mann is a nice guy, I've met him several times, and I have no doubt that he truly means well. Trouble is, he thinks he knows better than ordinary Americans about what is best for our country. "Ordinary citizens think we'll just solve all this [special interest influence] by getting money out," says Mann. He then explains that this is isn't the goal at all and that the McCain-Feingold bill wasn't even intended to get big money out of politics, just "rearrange the flow."

Now, to be fair, there is some value to rearranging the flow of big money in politics. All things being equal, fat cat donors and politicians alike would prefer if the donors could just write unlimited checks that went straight into the pockets of the politicians to use however they want. As I noted a few days ago, it looks like Connecticut Governor Roland used gifts to buy himself a hot tub. So, it is modest progress to "rearrange the flow" out of a politicians personal wallet into a campaign fund, or better yet into a political party, or better still into an independent organization with no ties to the candidate at all. That organization still may spend the same amount of money in ways that will benefit the candidate, but it is a little further removed, a little more sanitary, and a little more difficult for fat cats to outright buy election results.

But I think that ordinary Americans have it right when they want to get big money out of politics. Claiming it can't be done ignores the many examples of state and local governments that have passed reforms that seriously curbed big money in politics.

Inside the beltway reformers whose goal is merely to rearrange big money in politics are a bit like those who talked about rearranging the lawnchairs on the deck of the titanic. By ignoring the real problem, their solutions will not stop our ship of democracy from sinking. Worse yet, by ignoring the common sense instincts of ordinary Americans, they are ensuring that the reform movement will not build the grassroots support necessary to enact meaningful change that will get our ship back on course.


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