Limit Spending to Perpetuate Incumbency : Challengers, without official perquisites, would suffer.

<i> Joseph Farah is editor of the biweekly cultural watchdog Dispatches and the political newsletter Inside California</i>

Tom Hayden was wrong about Vietnam. He was wrong about socialism. He was wrong about Big Green. He’s been wrong about so many things that it’s difficult to keep track.

But all of a sudden, Tom Hayden, the Rodney Dangerfield of California politics, is getting some respect. His Don Quixote- style bid to become the next governor or, at least, to reform our corrupt political system in the process, is actually getting positive reviews. Everybody seems to agree that campaign spending is out of control and that there should be additional restrictions on political contributions.

Now, it’s tempting to attack Hayden on the ground of hypocrisy, given his own record of buying Assembly and Senate seats. But that would be too easy--and miss the point. The point is this: Once again, Hayden is just plain wrong. As righteous as they might sound, imposing stricter limits on political spending and moving toward greater reliance on public financing are bad ideas.

Why? Well, for starters, they’re predicated on a myth--the idea that spending limits are needed to stimulate greater competition and protect poor challengers from high-rolling incumbents. The reality is that spending limits would represent the greatest incumbent-protection racket ever devised. Remember, between elections the officeholder has the advantage of sending out mass mailings to constituents at public expense. It’s the incumbent who can use the office to strengthen name identification with voters. Clearly, it’s the challenger who needs extra help at election time. If we’re after competitiveness, we’re handicapping the wrong horse by placing arbitrary caps on spending.


The only alternative to tighter controls on contributions and spending is more taxpayer-supported campaign financing. But this so-called reform has been an unmitigated disaster and has actually resulted in even more extravagant campaign spending. After all, if every dollar you spend is going to be matched by the taxpayer, the government is merely encouraging more profligate spending. In effect, public financing just subsidizes the most well-funded campaigns.

It also permits something even more pernicious. It allows extremist fringe candidates--people like, say, David Duke and Tom Hayden--to spend taxpayer dollars espousing divisiveness and lies. This is America, and even Duke and Hayden should be allowed to have their say and run for office. But why should I be forced to bankroll their campaigns? Why should victims of racism have to subsidize Duke? Why should the taxpayer dollars of Vietnam veterans be diverted to the Hayden-for-governor campaign? That’s what public financing does.

Hayden and his born-again campaign-reform movement would tell you that limiting contributions is a way to check “special interests.” The most powerful special interest in our state today is the California Teachers Assn. It spends millions on political campaigns--money it collects from all public-school teachers, whether they like it or not. Now, I’m as opposed to that kind of coercion and power-brokering as anyone. But the way to stop it is not to limit what the CTA can spend, it’s to deny any organization the right to extort money from people who have no choice. Watch how fast that “special interest” reservoir dries up when involuntary dues become illegal.

There’s nothing inherently evil about political contributions. In fact, money is not only “the mother’s milk of politics,” as Jesse Unruh used to say, it’s also the pavement on the information superhighway. Without it there is no advertising, no direct-mail campaigns and no political literature. In other words, there’s no communication, no challenge to the status quo, no exchange of ideas.

California is a big place. A candidate for statewide office can’t walk door-to-door and expect to get a message out. Television and other expensive mass media are indispensable. So by limiting the amount a candidate can spend, we are, in effect, placing restrictions on the most basic form of constitutionally protected free speech. That may be the most important reason of all to oppose the kind of “reform” Hayden has in mind.

No system is ever going to be perfect. But big-government edicts and regulations never solve our most serious problems. In fact, they usually make them worse. And they always deprive us of freedom. Hayden may enliven the Democratic gubernatorial primary. But let’s not get too caught up in his cause du jour. After all, his track record is hardly impressive.