High-powered lawyers who serve high-powered individuals are not strangers to the halls of Yale Law School — but no one can top Bob Bauer’s client.

Bauer, personal lawyer to President Barack Obama and chairman of the Political Law Group of Perkins Coie LLP, surveyed the history of campaign finance reform Thursday before a Yale Law School crowd of 80. In his hour-long talk, Bauer explained how campaign finance law emerged from the Watergate scandal and evolved into a complex web of regulations that have shaped today’s presidential campaigns.

[ydn-legacy-photo-inline id=”11137″ ]

“Election law is a relatively new creation,” said Bauer, who is a visiting lecturer in law at the Law School. “Four decades old — barely.”

Professor Heather Gerken introduced Bauer, praising him as the mastermind behind the success and organization of the Obama campaign. Bauer quipped that his legacy would pale in comparison to that of other presidential campaign general counsels, such as Gordon Liddy, who served as general counsel of the 1972 Richard Nixon re-election campaign and campaign finance committee. After all, Bauer said, he never broke into any campaign offices or organized any wiretaps.

“My career will never be comparable in any way to that of Gordon Liddy,” Bauer said sarcastically.

With that, Bauer opened his discussion of the Watergate scandal, which he said led to a spurt of campaign finance reform in the 1970s. Initial attempts at reform before Watergate — including the 1971 Federal Election Campaign Act — had significant weaknesses, Bauer said. The 1971 law was designed to limit spending, Bauer said, and had to be strengthened following the scandal to mandate greater transparency in presidential campaigns. That legislation also established limits for the amount of money that could be donated to candidates — so-called “hard money.”

But even the 1974 reforms still allowed for unrestricted “soft money” contributions — funds donated directly to parties and often funneled to candidates.

Congress finally cracked down on “soft money” in 2002, Bauer said, with the passage of the McCain-Feingold Act.

“It was sold on the basis that the Watergate reforms had failed,” he said. “It was a scheme to enforce the contribution limits set in 1974.”

In general, the political left has driven the development of regulations and restrictions, Bauer said, but that has changed since 2004.

The “galvanizing moment” was the election between former President George W. Bush ’68 and Massachusetts Senator John Kerry ’66, Bauer said. In that contest, which Bauer termed an “election of so-called ‘big issues,’ ” Democratic “527” special interest groups opposing the war in Iraq launched repeated media attacks against Bush using money not associated with Kerry’s campaign.

After that, Bauer said, conservative groups increasingly carried the banner of greater regulation. This trend continued in 2008, Bauer said, when Obama turned down public financing — funds given to presidential candidates in exchange for limits on spending.

Previous candidates were afraid to drop out of public funding, Bauer said, because they feared leaning on big donors would lead to voter backlash. Obama skirted that danger, Bauer said, by relying on hundreds of thousands of supporters who each chipped in $10, $15 or $25 several times throughout the campaign.

That point resonated with Michael Ellis LAW ’11, who attended Bauer’s talk.

“We’ve never had a president that has been able to mobilize such a mass of voters,” Ellis said. “A president who can directly mobilize people like that can hold more power.”

Diana Kane LAW ’11 said she was expecting less of a “theoretical discussion” and more of a “case study” from Bauer, based on his experiences from the 2008 campaign.

“My interest is less on campaign finance and more in the bigger picture of enfranchisement and electoral participation,” Kane said. “These were triumphs of the campaign and I would have enjoyed the war stories — but unfortunately we didn’t get that.”

Bauer has authored several books on campaign finance, including “Soft Money Hard Law: A Guide to the New Campaign Finance Law,” and serves on the national advisory board of the Journal of Law and Politics.