Life, like the DeSantis campaign, will be over before you know it, so I won’t waste too much time talking about a candidate who probably isn’t going anywhere. Though Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis might fade into irrelevance, his shameless and shady campaign for the Republican nomination is leaving us with a question worth pondering:
Why should we care about the rules of campaign finance anymore?
For the entire time I’ve been covering presidential campaigns — this is my seventh — reformers in Washington have been trying to limit the corrosive effect of money on our politics. Democrats like to say that the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. FEC created the modern landscape of shadow donors and corporate influencers, but in fact it was the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, known as the McCain-Feingold law, that really started this mess.
The praiseworthy goal of that law was to limit the amount of “soft money” contributions that the two parties could take from corporate donors. The unintended consequence was to create a new generation of outside spenders — groups we know today as super PACs — that are both more powerful and less accountable than strong parties ever were.
As I have explained at some length, all Citizens United (along with some related court rulings) really did was to codify what had been happening for years and wipe away some technical restrictions on what super PACs could say in their ads as they got closer to an election.
One important rule remained in place, however: Candidates were not allowed to coordinate activities or messaging with the super PACs that supported them. Most campaigns since then, guided by legions of pricey lawyers, have gone to great lengths to comply (or at least appear to comply) with that caveat. Plenty of candidates in recent years have blurred the lines, but none have obliterated them in quite the way DeSantis has.
The DeSantis campaign is essentially fully funded by super PACs, in part because the candidate himself can’t seem to raise any money. He has toured Iowa and New Hampshire on a bus paid for by his main super PAC, Never Back Down, which described DeSantis as its “special guest.” That’s about as stealthy as Instagramming your bank robbery.
I guess no one should have been surprised when the Associated Press reported that DeSantis has been dictating strategy to Never Back Down, through friends of his who sit on the board.
The campaign denies the allegations, but it’s hard to escape the conclusion that DeSantis just doesn’t care. Or, more precisely, he assumes that no one else does. The Federal Election Commission, the body charged with enforcing campaign finance laws, is notoriously slow and ideologically deadlocked; the worst that will happen is that DeSantis’s campaign will be hit with a token fine long after it ceases to exist.
More to the point, voters find all these rules confusing and arcane (because they are), and DeSantis is betting that no one voting in a Republican primary is going to penalize him for flagrantly violating them. On that point, he’s probably right.
But indulge me here for a moment, because there actually is a reason we should care about blatant transgressions of these rules. It’s not that the candidate will, in the end, be any more beholden to his shadowy donors than anyone else might be. It’s that his callous behavior is telling you something larger about the type of person you’re dealing with.
Perhaps you’ve had the experience of driving around a crowded parking lot looking for a space, only to see some guy pull into a handicapped spot and dash into the store like he’s Usain Bolt. Or maybe you’ve been in a hurry and found yourself stuck in the express line at the supermarket because some woman just unloaded 25 items from her cart, even though the sign clearly says that the limit is 15.
Trifling crimes of little consequence? Sure. But you know what? Good people don’t commit them.
Good people try to follow the same basic rules as everybody else, because that’s a hallmark of empathy and perspective. Only entitled and selfish people cast aside the rules of society that inconvenience them, simply because they calculate that they can.
A candidate who will gleefully ignore the campaign finance rules you find so arcane is exactly the kind of guy who will leave his dog poop on your lawn when you’re not home. He’s that guy sitting three rows behind you on the plane who jumps into the aisle after landing and vaults past before you can even get your bag.
We don’t have to wonder what a person like that would be like as president. We’ve already had Donald Trump. If we learned nothing else from that experience, it’s that an entitled, self-obsessed politician in the White House will taint everything in our politics and make a coarse joke of civility and honor.
Goodness and humility matter for a lot in politics. Which is why campaign rules still matter, too, whether they make any sense to us or not.
Image Credits: Eric Gay/AP