For those who think modern campaign finance is shady, consider the climate just before the turn of the century. Perhaps more than any other president, William McKinley was seen as a puppet of big business interests—and justifiably so. Campaign finance expert Anthony Corrado, a professor of government at Colby College, reckons that McKinley spent at least $3 million in each of his successful presidential runs, in 1896 and 1900. With the help of the legendary Republican Party organizer Mark Hanna, McKinley’s campaign collected money from the barons who ran the banks, railroads, oil companies, and trusts, with each asked to fork over cash in proportion to his company’s "stake in the general prosperity of the country.”
Among the deepest-pocketed donors of the time was E.H. Harriman, a railroad owner whose name will be familiar to anyone who’s seen Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Another big McKinley spender was Henry Clay Frick, the steel man and namesake of one of New York’s famous art museums. Just how much did they give? No one knows, because there were no disclosure requirements.
As with the pre-Watergate boom years, these fin de siècle excesses gave rise to reforms. In 1907, Teddy Roosevelt signed the Tillman Act, which restricted corporate contributions to campaigns. Decades later, the rise of big union donations to Franklin D. Roosevelt spurred limits on union spending as well.
If there is an apt superlative for Adelson’s donations to Gingrich, Corrado says, it’s this: Never, that we know of, has an individual propped up one candidate’s campaign to such an extent. That is, an individual other than the candidate himself—candidates have long been allowed to bankroll their own campaigns, a fact that has favored ultra-rich hopefuls like, well, Mitt Romney. Romney has in fact significantly outspent Gingrich in the current campaign, even counting the Adelson money.
Reforms have changed the ways people give, and they have often suppressed the influence of money in campaigns for a time after their passage. But if there’s one recurring lesson from the history of campaign finance reform, it’s that big money always influences the process one way or another.
Bradley Smith, a member of the Federal Election Commission from 2000 to 2005, takes that as an argument against campaign finance reform. Now a law professor at Capital University in Ohio, Smith argued for the plaintiffs in a 2010 federal appeals court case that laid the groundwork for super PACs in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. A First Amendment absolutist, Smith opposes even disclosure rules as invasions of privacy. Senate Republicans seem to agree: They blocked a bill last year that would have required super PACs to name their top donors when advertising on television. (There’s now talk of resurrecting it.)
The current rules at least make it possible to find out where Newt Gingrich’s money is coming from—an improvement on McKinley’s day. When he talks tough on Palestine, it’s fair to question whether he’s espousing his true beliefs or parroting a line from his benefactor. There’s no question that Gingrich has been paid for by Sheldon Adelson. It’s up to voters to decide whether he’s been bought.