-- United States Senator Mark Hanna, 1895
It was over a hundred years ago that Ohio political boss and Senator Mark Hanna spoke about the relationship between politics and money. So there's no use longing for the "good old days" when it comes to political fundraising – because there weren't any. Let's not be naïve here, the fact is that politics has always been infested by money. And that's a major problem - money and politics just do not mix, and it is time for their divorce.
Last week the political world about came to a stop as the 2008 presidential candidates reported their fundraising returns from this year's first quarter. We saw the top three democratic candidates – Hillary Rodham Clinton, Barack Obama, and John Edwards – combine to bring in $65 million, while their top three counterparts from the Republican Party – Mitt Romney, Rudy Giuliani, and John McCain – brought in nearly $50 million combined. These numbers are not necessarily staggering (remember George Bush and John Kerry raised $1 billion between them prior to the 2004 presidential election), but they are greatly disconcerting. And they just give further evidence that it is time to pass real and revolutionary campaign finance reform.
The problem is that very few elected officials and political aides truly want to eliminate political fundraising or strengthen campaign finance laws. Former House Speaker and potential 2008 presidential candidate, Newt Gingrich described the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act from 2002 (also known as the McCain-Feingold Act), as "the most systematic effort to censor and repress political speech by those in power since the Federalist overreach of the 18th century." The current fundraising frontrunner for the Republican Party, Mitt Romney received a thunderous ovation when he recently told the Conservative Political Action Conference last month that McCain-Feingold was "ill-considered" and "harmful," and that he would repeal it if elected president. Gingrich and Romney are just a few examples of influential folks who believe money is speech, and/or that privately donated money is necessary for democratic campaigns to run properly.
But I (and millions of Americans, a few of which are even lawmakers) disagree. First, giving money is not giving voice. Second, privately donated money is not necessary for a campaign if "clean" or public money is given equally to each candidate. I agree with the political activist Doris Haddock who literally walked across the country at the age of 88 in hopes of bringing about true campaign finance reform. She said, "If money is speech, then those with more money have more speech, and that idea is antithetical to a democracy that cherishes political fairness. It makes us no longer equal citizens."
Why is it that political donors can get the ear of the President or even a seat in the government (see the Sam Fox story or hundreds other like it if you want proof), yet ordinary citizens can barely get a form letter response from their local congressman? Why is it that tens of millions of Americans abstain from voting, or that the majority of Americans think elected officials are not true public servants, and that barely 15 percent of the population think Congress is honest and ethical? Why is it that so many people feel alienated and apathetic about politics? Well, if you get out and talk to people, and if you do legitimate polling, you find that these people feel betrayed by their elected officials at the expense of big donors, lobbyists, the media, big business, and special interests. And as the great journalist Bill Moyers says, "When so many people drop out of a system they no longer respect and which they think no longer represents them, democracy loses its legitimacy."
American democracy (i.e., American Politics) is losing its legitimacy at home and abroad because it is being ruled by the elite instead of the people, as it was intended. Despite the fact that Barack Obama claims over 100,000 people donated the $25 million to his campaign chest, you can confidently bet the majority of it was given by large donors, huge political action committees, unions, corporations, and all the like. And this is no knock on him, it's a knock on the system. Everyone's doing it, and you'd be a fool not to. According to elections expert, Charles Cook, nine of the ten major-party nominations from 1984 to 2000 went to the candidate who raised the most money in the pre-election year.
The McCain-Feingold Act showed that campaign finance reform is possible. And it showed that we can actually do something to stem the importance of money in politics. But it also shows that unless radical action is taken, campaigns will continue to be run by money. So here is the idea that I'm embracing – one that is radical but possible.
Eliminate all private donations to candidates or candidates PAC's. Make every donation to any political group (private firms, PACs, interest organizations, and the like) limited and transparent. Strengthen the firewalls between these groups and campaigns so that they are not in cahoots. Then, create a very nominal campaign tax (some studies estimate it would cost only $5 per taxpayer per year to cover all congressional elections) so that all candidates have a fund of clean money to use while running for public office. Finally, mandate equal and extensive free advertising on all public television, radio, print, and online media outlets so each candidate can express his platform to the public. Campaign finance reforms like these (and surely a few others), will create positively great changes in American politics.
Clean campaigns will eliminate many of the abuses that we currently see in American politics. So much of the paybacks, waste, bribery, buying and selling of votes, and general corruption will immediately be put to sleep. Clean campaigns will reduce the power of elites by ending the new arms race for money, and bring back the soul of democracy by increasing the power of the people. And just as importantly, the public can regain confidence in their elected officials, and trust that for once, they are truly the ones being served.