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Right Field

Winning Vote$

By Russ Smith | Posted 4/25/2007

The constant nagging by newspaper editorial boards about the huge sums of money raised and spent by candidates gets more tiresome every year. Now that it's clear that the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform act of 2002 has done nothing to decrease the amount of money infiltrating the country's electoral apparatus except create loopholes that politicians and special-interest groups exploit, isn't it time to put this issue to rest?

Let's start with the peculiar practice of publicly funding, at least in part, general presidential elections. When was the last time you checked off the box on an income tax return allowing the government to take $3 to help meet the $85 million given to the Democrat and Republican competing for the White House every fourth November? Even though such donations are voluntary, there's an implicit notion that those who refrain aren't quite model citizens. In addition, all the rhetoric about how a fixed limit on funding--in all elections, not just at the national level--evens the competition, at least on the money side, hasn't convinced me that is a desirable, or democratic, result.

The pure theory of public funding and limits on donations isn't necessarily bad, focusing on the influence certain wealthy individuals, lobbyists, corporate entities, or special-interest groups might have on an elected representative, but strict disclosures on the internet can record all monies collected by candidates and the identities of those disbursing the funds. (The U.S. Senate, to its discredit, has dragged its heels on full 'net disclosure. According to The Washington Post, an unidentified senator has blocked Sen. Dianne Feinstein's bill that would require that body of Congress to follow the House, presidential candidates, and political action committees in regularly electronically posting financial contributions.) For example, there was an interactive guide on the New York Times web site last week in which a reader could type in a ZIP code and find all the contributors from that specific part of the country, how much they gave, and to what person. It's there that I learned my former next-door neighbor in Manhattan, once a staunch Hillary Clinton supporter, has shifted allegiances this cycle to Barack Obama, giving the maximum $2,300 for the primaries.

The Sun ran an editorial on April 9 decrying the vast amounts of cash already collected by the large field of Democratic and Republican candidates, and despaired that the competition has already been thinned by the necessity of campaigns to dial for dollars. The writer said, "[T]he no-holds-barred competition now under way appears to have effectively narrowed the race to the three best-known candidates in each party, and threatens to drive others out before most voters tune in." The Sun worries too much that "outsiders" with a message won't be able to compete. After all, it wasn't even eight months ago that most Americans hadn't even heard of Obama, and now he's essentially even with Sen. Clinton in the Democratic fundraising totals.

Also, if fringe candidates such as liberal Dennis Kucinich or anti-immigration Republican zealot Tom Tancredo really had a platform that not only donors but also political writers and activists were receptive to, the money would be raised, just as it was for the then-little known Howard Dean in 2004.

What, exactly, is the sin in raising enormous amounts of money in the hopes of winning an election? There's speculation that the 2008 presidential campaign will exceed $1 billion in total expenditures, an amount that, on the face of it, seems enormous. In reality, take a look at the advertising budgets of the huge corporations that inundate television, newsprint, and the web with their commercials. Has The Sun, or other leading newspapers, called for a moratorium on this spending? Of course not, and for that consumers can be thankful that the First Amendment isn't threatened when pure commerce is involved.

The New York Times has a fervent editorial stance about the truckloads of money that candidates collect earlier and earlier in the campaign cycle. On April 5, an editorialist gave halfhearted praise to Obama for admitting that he's "raising obscene amounts of money" and then went on to claim the electorate is disgusted by the current political system. Probably so, but when was that not the case? In an earlier editorial (Jan. 29), the Times indulged in nostalgia, noting that John F. Kennedy didn't announce his candidacy for the presidency until Jan. 2, 1960. The paper didn't bother to point out that back in "the old days," there were no limits to fundraising, which was certainly to the benefit of then-Sen. Kennedy, whose campaign was largely funded by his multimillionaire father and his friends.

There's the fear that money, and the time that candidates devote to trolling for it, has shut out "ideas" in presidential campaigns. That would be news to John Edwards, who has stated flatly that he'd raise taxes to implement national health care; or John McCain, who is defying public opinion polls by staunchly backing the war in Iraq.

The Times has said that elections are conducted today with "warpspeed." That's true, but what aspect of modern American life isn't affected by the vast technological changes that have occurred in the past generation?

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