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This guest editorial was published in the Raleigh, N.C. News and Observer on May 27, 1986.
Toward the end of our recent primary campaign, I found in my mail an envelope from Common Cause stuffed full of petitions urging campaign reform. After having read ad after ad in which candidates ran on the backs of their wives and children, churches, business and professional associations, but never on an issue of substance, I smirked as I trashed the envelope.
No doubt, campaign reform is a desperate necessity. But the big lobbies are stomping around so heavily in the muck of campaign financing that their eyes are too roiled for them to see the real problem.
Campaign financing can only be reformed by politicians, yet they know more desperately than most of us how important campaign financing has become. They need it; they depend upon it—they cannot reform what they have become so needy of and dependent upon. Then, too, there are the constitutional issues involved in attempts at such reform that may be insurmountable without endangering our other liberties as well.
But has anyone seriously asked why campaign financing has grown so important? Could it be that such vast amounts of money are necessary because too many candidates have nothing substantial to run on and therefore can only attempt to outdo one another in inundating us with irrelevant nonsense that provides them with their one hope of success-name—recognition? If so, the problem the reformers are concerned with perhaps can he solved without the help of politicians.
The United States has a great tradition of voluntarism. Why can't we put this tradition to work once more?
Why can't some non-partisan institution, such as the Educational Testing Service in Princeton, N.J., prepare every other year a series of examinations that test at least the following knowledge: 1) complicated critical reasoning; 2) the philosophical foundations of our and other political and economic systems; and 3) the historical bases or the pressing social problems of the moment?
Why can't we then induce another non-partisan group, such as the League of Women Voters, to administer these examinations and encourage candidates from the lowest to the highest offices to take them voluntarily with the provision that if they do, they agree to publish the results in all of their campaign literature, even if that literature merely pictures their families?
Of course, this effort still might not result in any serious debates of the issues, but the public would at least know which candidates knew something about them and which had the ability to critically evaluate the pressures put on officeholders by the special interest lobbies. Such a simple voluntary effort also might discourage office seekers motivated more by ambition than ability and encourage others with more ability to seek office.
The realization of this idea requires no legislation and little expense and poses no threat—except that of comparison —to those who are afraid to reform the current system. And if any office seeker should ask why he should be expected to demonstrate some ability in advance of his election, we can ask him why legislators require so many other professions to demonstrate theirs.