Sunday, October 23, 2005

Incumbent insurance

One of the places my commentary can be found most often is RedState.org. A few days ago RedState founder and editor Mike Krempasky posted a piece on McCain-Feingold, and asked readers:
Please take a moment to explain to me again why restricting challenger access to resources in the name of "clean campaigns!" is a good idea? Why ought we stack the deck to protect our entrenched political class?
Why indeed? would be my standard reply. But then commenter "Steve M" opined:
It seems to me that redistricting issues create a far greater degree of incumbent protection than any sort of campaign finance reform.
Well, needless to say I think there's some merit to the argument that the whole issue of redistricting is frought with opportunities for well-entrenched incumbents to become more so. Still, redistricting with nefarious, political motives, or gerrymandering, isn't the whole story. As I responded to the commenter:

If you’re referring to gerrymandering, then I'd agree that no doubt politicians do their utmost to insure that the composition of their districts is favorable. But I think campaign finance "reform", which basically amounts to contribution limits, exerts a huge impact as a force for incumbent protection. We see this most vividly in the House of Representatives. The US now has reelection rates in the House that would make Mao proud. As someone who favors GOP control of both branches of Congress, maybe I should be happy with that, but I'm not.

Think about it: incumbents already enjoy a massive advantage in name recognition and in "constituent loyalty" (the latter of which flows from the fact that most voters rightly comprehend that incumbency directly translates into economic benefits for their district, and this sets up a vicious circle that means an incumbent is all the more unbeatable the longer he is in office). Voters respond rationally to this phenomenon by skeptically viewing the candidacy of anyone seeking to unseat "their guy". They know it could hurt their wallets.

Anyway, just equalizing these advantages costs lots of money, especially in urban districts where advertising costs are astronomical. How'd you like to be challenging an incumbent in New York, where media buyers won't even return your call unless you've got a healthy six figure budget? Unless you happen to be a very wealthy candidate who can self-finance, challenging an incumbent means raising lots of money. And that, in turn, is mighty difficult when the law only allows you to do so in tiny increments.

Why not remove these limits entirely and replace them with strict disclosure requirements? If some billionaire thinks your candidacy makes sense, why not allow him to cut you a seven figure check? As long as voters and the press were fully informed about where your money comes from, they'd be free to cast the lever against you if they don't like the source of your funds. I can guarantee you comfortable incumbents just love the current status quo, because unless they happen to bump up against the occasional millionaire candidate, they know they've got a deadly advantage -- it's called the power of incumbency -- in crushing challengers.


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