It's true: campaign finance law is absurdly difficult for media to explain to American voters. The numbers are abstractly large, the rules are complicated, and everyone wonders if American voters actually care.
The polls certainly seem to say Americans are concerned. Across the political spectrum, voters consistently tell the media the tidal wave of money in politics is a grave problem and the case that opened the flood gates -- Citizens United -- should be overturned. Whether it's Republicans complaining about the “special interests” of Washington, D.C. or Democrats warning about the billionaires running our campaigns, the message is clear: clean elections matter.
The editorial boards and television pundits seem to agree. Like clockwork, with every new discouraging development handed down by the courts on campaign finance law, every new revelation of the monied power brokers pulling politicians' strings, every new failure to effectively enforce the election regulations on the books, solemn editorials are written and monologues are delivered warning American voters that the system has become at-risk to rampant corruption and conflicts of interest.
And yet here we are: live on Fox Business Network during their televised presidential debate, under questioning from FBN's Maria Bartiromo, a major presidential candidate just admitted he violated a basic campaign finance transparency rule in a fashion that runs antithetical to his core political image and he seems to think no one cares. He certainly doesn't seem to be afraid of the media calling him out, although some are trying. How else do we describe the embarrassing image of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), ostensibly one of the most intelligent legislators in Congress, brazenly admitting in a live presidential debate he broke the law as a senatorial candidate by taking a roughly million dollar campaign loan from Goldman Sachs and Citibank without properly disclosing the sources to the Federal Election Commission (FEC)?
Maybe the reason Bartiromo didn't follow up her original question with anything more than a “thank you” was that she was as stunned as the rest of us.
Yes, the candidate also misled about the details of his election violation on national television and media fact checkers duly called out the bait-and-switch after. Disclosing the possible conflict of interest in receiving a million dollars from Goldman Sachs (this Goldman Sachs) and Citibank while you're campaigning as a man of the people railing against the big bad establishment is not the same thing as disclosing the possible conflict of interest after you've been elected, a conflation the candidate nevertheless attempted to sell with a straight face during the debate. That's like a voter explaining they didn't properly register before they cast a ballot but did so afterwards, so it's all good.
That's not how it works.
Election disclosure laws are supposed to inform Americans before they vote so they can make an educated decision. In fact, this principle of mandated disclosure may have been the only reason Citizens United was allowed in the first place -- as a counterbalance to the obvious conflicts of interest the Supreme Court was about to tempt politicians with. The entire point behind the legal argument that led the conservatives on the Supreme Court to allow the 1% more unfiltered access to campaigning politicians was the idea that at least Americans would know who was potentially buying influence. In the case of Cruz, who rails against big money and the elite as a point of pride, such information may have been particularly interesting to the Tea Partiers who voted for him.
But again, here we are. A major presidential candidate seems to think either voters are idiots, or the media are.
So it's a challenge. The number is a cool million, easy for the typical news consumer to grasp. The case law and implementing disclosure regulations are cut and dry -- if you take money from a bank for your campaign, you have to identify the bank to the FEC. It boils down to the third problem of campaign finance reporting -- does the American public care? They say they do, over and over again, and the media keeps telling us this is an important part of American democracy, so what's the disconnect, if any?
With this ridiculously clear campaign finance violation on display for all to see, we're about to find out.
If media can't get the American public to understand why this sort of behavior, certainly not unique to Cruz, is a big problem, it's no longer the fault of the American public. They aren't the experts. It's the media's job to provide the expertise. But if the media can't effectively explain this one to its audience -- it's time to rethink how campaign finance reporting is done.
After all, Cruz is basically daring you.