Buying the election
Do you remember that moment in the first Austin Powers movie when Dr. Evil, back in action after being cryogenically frozen for 30 years, gets his hands on a nuclear warhead? “If you want it back,” he snarls to a group of world leaders who have gathered in a secret U.N. bunker, “you will have to pay me” — here he pauses for dramatic effect — “one million dollars!” The assembled leaders burst into laughter because it was such a pathetically small sum.
Campaign finance these days reminds me a lot of that scene. I lived for a few years in Washington, right around the time that Congress, aroused by the Watergate scandal, was reforming the country’s campaign finance laws. It instituted a system for presidential elections that combined small contributions from individuals ($1,000 or less), public financing from the taxpayers and a cap on how much the candidates could spend. In the Gerald Ford-Jimmy Carter year of 1976, the two candidates were allowed to spend — can we pause here for dramatic effect? — around $35 million each.
Fast forward 36 years, to last weekend’s news that the Obama campaign had raised $181 million in just one month, September. Not all that long ago, the ability to partake of public financing was a sign that you had arrived as a serious candidate; today no candidate in his right mind would want to be so constrained.
Four years ago, Barack Obama became the first presidential candidate since campaign reform was instituted to opt out of public financing for the general election. He raised $750 million. John McCain, who accepted public financing, was only able to directly spend the $84 million or so he was allotted under the system (although the Republican Party raised millions more). This election season, Mitt Romney and Obama could end up spending more than $1 billion each. They seem to spend more time fundraising than pressing the flesh with voters. According to Brendan Doherty, a political science professor at the U.S. Naval Academy, Obama has held six fundraisers in a single day. Twice.
And that doesn’t even account for what’s truly different about this election: the rise of the super PACs and 501(c)(4)s, which are essentially a form of campaign money-laundering, allowing wealthy people to contribute millions toward supposedly “independent” spending on campaign advertising, polling and other expensive campaign goodies. Sheldon Adelson, the casino mogul, whose main political interest appears to be Israel, has pumped $10 million into Restore Our Future, the biggest Republican super PAC. Although individual contributions to a particular candidate remain severely restricted — no more than $5,000 — the amount someone can pour into a super PAC is limitless. The means by which the country finances its campaigns is utterly broken.
In a recent cover story in The Atlantic, James Bennet, the editor, traces how that happened. He focuses on a man named Jim Bopp Jr., a lawyer from Terre Haute, Ind., who has largely devoted his life to freeing the nation of campaign spending limits. To him — and, indeed, to the majority of the current Supreme Court, in the Citizens United case — limits on political spending are a violation of the First Amendment.
What is astonishing is the way Bopp makes unlimited spending seem actually democratic. “Most people don’t even know who their congressman is,” Bopp tells Bennet. If there were more spending on campaigns, voters would be more educated about the candidates. The Supreme Court majority, meanwhile, has essentially said that, by definition, campaign spending that is independent of the candidate cannot be corrupting.
But, of course, what we are learning in the real world is that super PACs and 501(c)(4)s are hardly independent. Karl Rove, who absolutely knows what the Romney campaign needs at any given moment, runs the most important of the Republican super PACs. Rahm Emanuel, the mayor of Chicago and Obama’s first chief of staff, is helping to raise money for a Democratic super PAC.
What we also know in the real world is that unlimited spending will not serve to enlighten voters. It will deaden them to political argument — as is happening in just about every swing state, where the ads are running with such frequency that people are tuning them out. Finally, we know from hard experience that the money that comes into politics has the potential to corrupt.
In Congress we see it every day. A congressman gets on an important committee, begins to raise money from the companies that care about the committee’s issues — and, suddenly, the congressman is writing legislation the company wants.
What feels different now is that the sums are so large and that they have the potential to influence not just congressional and Senate candidates but the presidential candidates as well. If Romney wins, will he really be willing to take a position on Israel that is different from Adelson’s? One suspects not.
“This can’t be good for democracy,” Bennet told me in an email. It’s not.
Joe Nocera is a columnist for The New York Times.