Funny money blights the US elections
Most losers want their defeats to mean something profound, but Elizabeth Dole's early departure from the presidential race last week should prompt even optimists to worry about the direction of American politics.
She quit before a single real vote had been cast, before any true debates had been held, before her (admittedly largely vacuous) ideas could be compared with those of her opponents. And she quit not because she was faint of heart or without a constituency - she regularly polled second only to George W Bush in national and regional polls - but purely because she had nothing like the money she needed to compete.

She quit because in American politics these days, money is not simply, as a Chicago politician once put it, "the mother's milk of politics", it is everything.

It is, for starters, the de facto primary process. Those people still waiting for Iowa and New Hampshire to see the battle begin are hopelessly behind the times. The real primary - the money primary - is already in full swing, and has been going on now for several months.

Five candidates have dropped out of the Republican race already. In truth, there are now only two serious competitors for the Republican nomination: Bush and Senator John McCain. Steve Forbes, despite enormous funds, has no political experience and would be a joke as the nominee. Ditto Gary Bauer, a product of the special interest group politics of the kooky religious right. The primary season, in other words, is almost over before it has even begun.

How it got this way is a wonderful example of unintended consequences. Presidential nominees once emerged in America rather like Tory leaders in Britain. The party elders essentially got together and decided on a candidate. Sometimes there were splits and fights, resolved in those wonderful circuses once known as party conventions. Bargaining in back rooms, haggling on the floor of the convention and tub-thumping speeches ensued.

Moneyed and aristocratic types inevitably held disproportionate influence, which is why reform eventually burst on the scene. In the wake of Watergate, strict limits were placed on what an individual could contribute to any presidential candidate - a maximum of $1,000 - and the primary process was given more clout in winnowing the field. The idea was to bring ordinary voters back into the process.

For a while, it seemed to work. Perhaps the archetypal product of this system was the first president elected under it: Jimmy Carter, a man with few big-money connections who came from nowhere through the primary process to win the presidency. But then the Supreme Court ruled that restricting private donations to political parties - though not to candidates - was an infringement of the right to free speech, and so big money came back in via donations to party organisations.

This so-called "soft money" was allegedly to be used solely for party purposes and not for presidential campaigns, but, of course, these distinctions were easily blurred. In 1995, Dick Morris used vast amounts of soft money to blizzard America with advertisements defending Bill Clinton's record and demonising Bob Dole under the auspices of Democratic party "issue ads". Before the campaign had even officially begun, Clinton had bought himself an unassailable lead.

The Supreme Court also ruled that a person could donate unlimited amounts of money to a presidential campaign as long as that person was the candidate. For the first time in history, multi-millionaires were given a constitutional advantage in running for president. Hence the campaigns of Ross Perot and Forbes, candidates who would have been unthinkable before the reforms aimed at preventing rich people buying influence in politics.

Others found ways to get around the $1,000 limit by using professional networks to "bundle" lists of people to donate a much larger wad of cash than any of them could individually. The result was that people with mailing lists or elaborate social and political networks were given an advantage over individuals who relied merely on skills, ideas or charisma.

So campaign 2000 is the logical end-point. Candidates with good congressional careers don't have the time or energy to build the kind of networks that make a presidential campaign possible. Governors of big states - such as Texas, California and New York - with large fundraising apparatuses already in place tend to do well. People with vast mailing lists, such as televangelists or television celebrities, have a niche. Billionaires - Perot, Forbes, Trump - can buy their way in. And party establishment types, such as Al Gore, can use the soft money loophole to claw back an advantage. And when they get into office, their first task is to pay back their financial supporters rather than govern the country.

It is no surprise that American elections keep setting new highs for money spent and new lows for voter turnout. In the last election cycle, for example, incumbents in the House of Representatives had a 5-1 money advantage over their challengers; Senate incumbents had a 2-1 lead. No wonder the re-election rate was 98%. And, according to a lobby for campaign finance reform, Common Cause, the amount of soft money being raised at this stage of the electoral cycle is up 80% on four years ago.

Liddy Dole is not the first victim of this. But she is surely now a poster-child for the problem. It was interesting that she refused to endorse Bush last week. Her resentment at the way he seems to have already bought the nomination was too near the surface.

If that resentment spreads and a backlash ensues among the excluded primary voters, then Bush and Gore might well be in some trouble. Which is why last week was not merely a terrible one for Liddy Dole. It was also an enormously encouraging one for Bill Bradley and, especially, John McCain.

~ Andrew Sullivan, "The Sunday Times", 24 Oct 1999


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