by Sarah Kneezle
In about as much time as it took Stephen Colbert to decide to run for
president, his application was rejected: South Carolina’s Democratic
Party says he’s not serious enough to be included on the ballot.
But serious or not, Colbert, the comedian who often mimics
conservative commentator Bill O’Reilly on his Colbert Report, was
nonetheless focusing on serious matters. By running as the official
candidate of Doritos, his aborted campaign satirized the cozy
relationship money has with politics. It’s a job that has become only
that much more relevant in wake of a Supreme Court ruling in June that
removed restrictions on pre-election television advertisements paid
for by corporations and unions.
Former Massachusetts Attorney General Scott Harshbarger is the former
president of Common Cause, a lobbying group that worked to pass the
Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (also called McCain-Feingold Act) in
2002. He said that the June court ruling is sure to have an effect on
this presidential election.
“This is a wealth primary,” said Harshbarger, a Democrat, who now
serves as senior counsel at Proskouer Rose in Boston. “Both parties
have become addicted to money. We need to cut off the unlimited amount
of money that is being funneled through the parties directly to
This year’s campaign is expected to be the first that costs the
collective candidates more than $1 billion – even though Congress has
tried to control the money that enters into campaigns since 1907’s
Tilman Act, which prohibited banks from making direct financial
contributions to candidates.
But, it wasn’t until the 1970s and the Watergate scandal that serious
campaign finance reform emerged.
Even before, in 1971, Congress had passed the Federal Election
Campaign Act, which required disclosure of contributions for federal
campaigns. But after Watergate in 1974, Congress passed an amendment
to this act that set limits on contributions and created the Federal
Elections Commission to monitor federal campaigns.
Nonetheless, campaigns soon were getting around efforts to limit
contributions by individuals, union and corporations as big backers
sent six-figure “soft money” contributions to the political parties.
In 2002, the McCain-Feingold Act sought to restrict the amount of
soft-money, too. In addition to banning such contributions to the
parties, it prohibited corporations from paying for advertisements
targeting candidates within 30 days of a federal primary election or
60 days of a federal general election.
But candidates and parties began to find ways around McCain-Feingold
by getting their supporters to donate to groups known as 527s,
tax-exempt advocacy groups that are not regulated by the FEC. In the
2004 presidential election, the 527 group Swift Boat Veterans for
Truth was created to combat Democratic nominee John Kerry’s stance in
the polls.
Then, this past June, a Supreme Court decision known as Wisconsin
Right to Life v. the FEC overturned another piece of campaign finance
reform — the statute limiting corporate advertising near elections.
The court found, by a vote of 5-4, that it was a restriction on
political speech.
Harshbarger believes more restrictions, not fewer restrictions, are
needed — that McCain-Feingold was just a first step.
“At some point we have to find that your civic worth is not measured
by your net worth and to allow some candidates to be viable candidates
through public financing,” he said.
But Brian Darling, the director of U.S. Senate relations at the
Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based conservative think-tank,
agreed with the court. “This was a clear violation of the spirit of
the First Amendment,” he said.
He said that the McCain-Feingold Act should be replaced with a law
allowing unlimited campaign contributions, but requiring full
disclosure of funds so that voters can decide if a candidate is
abusing power.
“We need to force transparency,” he said. “Voters can make the
ultimate determination and be the enforcers. Right now, there is a
huge gulf between the voter and the candidate.”
In a way, that was what Stephen Colbert did by partnering with Doritos
and Comedy Central (both of which are owned by Viacom). He turned the
soft-money that many candidates get under the table and turned it into
hard money.
“What’s the difference between saying I’m sponsored by Doritos and
getting 16 execs at Doritos (to contribute)?” Harshbarger asked.
When the Colbert campaign found out that it couldn’t legally run with
such sponsorship, it immediately switched gears. Colbert simply added
the word, “coverage” to the campaign’s lengthy name to suggest that
Doritos was not making direct contributions to his campaign. The name
was changed to “The Hail to the Cheese Stephen Colbert Nacho Cheese
2008 Presidential Campaign COVERAGE.”
Meanwhile, Colbert began registering in political polls – even though
his campaign was pure satire. In mid-October, he could boast of 2.3
percent of the Democratic vote polls, ahead of New Mexico Gov. Bill
Richardson and barely trailing Sen. Joe Biden, who are both real
On the Nov. 1 edition of the Colbert Report, Colbert received a phone
call on his iPhone from Carol Fowler, chair of the South Carolina
Democratic Party, who announced that she would not place Colbert’s
name on the state’s ballot.
After hanging up the phone, Colbert’s audience let out a rueful sigh.
“Hey well, they did what they thought was best for South Carolina,”
the comedian said. “I mean, it’s all for the best. I’m so busy with
my book tour and my show. And, hanging out with all those friends
that I have, plus I have all this time to eat these free delicious
Then Colbert mangled the 16-ounce bag of Nacho Cheese Doritos in his
hands, and cried, “Why, why don’t you want me in your race?”
Another Democrat competing in South Carolina, former North Carolina
Sen. John Edwards, who is a staunch supporter of campaign finance
reform and, like Sen. Barack Obama, has refused to take campaign
contributions from lobbyists, may have the answer.
“The truthiness is,” the Edwards campaign said in a statement after
Colbert attacked Edwards’ dedication to the state, “as the candidate
of Doritos, Colbert’s hands are stained by corporate corruption – and
nacho cheese.”
To see a clip of Stephen Colbert being rejected by South Carolina, click