Monday, June 25, 2012

The money that is really killing us.

We may remain in the economic doldrums with federal, state and local governments cutting vital programs, but money is flowing into political races like never before.   2012 is well on the road to being a record-spending year.  There is something grotesque about that — about this disconnect between service cutbacks and expanded political spending.  Money has consumed our politics.  The unending and relentless fund raising has crippled our government, even more so than has divisiveness.   Today, we are just as likely to encounter a lead story about fund raising as about the many issues that confront us as a nation or as a community.  It’s become just another game.  Score is being kept.  The ability to raise mega-bucks and to outspend opponents has become a key barometer of success.   The emails and letters we get from elected officials or from our political parties are more likely to be about contributions than about issues and they fill our mailboxes day in and out.  The old contention that money makes the world go round seems like a gross and laughable understatement.  No wonder that political office is increasingly the domain of the rich and super rich, the only of our citizens who can afford to play or stay in the game.

In November 2001, barely two months after the destruction of the Twin Towers, we New Yorkers went to the polls.  While still shell shocked, some of us felt a degree of relief in knowing that the often-polarizing man billed America’s Mayor by others would soon be history.  Fueled by a super ego and believing his own hyped press, Giuliani couldn’t quite accept that his time was over.  In fact, he went so far as to promote the notion of an extra-legal three-month term-extension so that he could personally get the city back on track.  It was more than presumptuous, but the man was, and remains, imbued by an exaggerated sense of self-importance.  We can all delude ourselves into thiking his humiliating run for the Presidency in 2008 served as a wakeup call.  Right!

The Billionaire media and information mogul Michael Bloomberg was elected that November.  Many people in New York and around the country think he’s been an excellent mayor.  Given two chances (I had moved by 2009), I could never bring myself to vote for him.  That had nothing to do with his lack of qualifications — he is an unquestionably able man.  My problem with Bloomberg was his self-financed campaign, pouring an unprecedented $73 Million into what seemed to me a bid to purchase the office.   That spending climbed to $85 Million four years later and a whopping $102 Million in 2009 for his third term bid, the one in which he engineered a suspension of term limits — ego is contagious.  It was said to be the most costly per vote expenditure of any election in American history.

Bloomberg is the first and still only billionaire public office holder.  Mitt Romney is among the super rich and officeholders like Congressman Darrell Issa (vehicle ant-theft devices) and retiring Senator Herb Kohl (department stores) are multi-millionaires many times over.  None, however, come even close to Bloomberg’s reputed $22 Billion net worth (number 12 on the Forbes 400).  While other billionaires are not seeking public office, they are increasingly injecting themselves into the electoral process.  The liberal George Soros has been doing so for many years much as in an earlier time did the ulta-conservative H. L. Hunt family of Texas.  These days, we have the Koch brothers who have a long history of supporting right wing causes and of course the infamous Sheldon Adelson, a self made billionaire whose casino and convention center holdings have also brought him to the top rung of the Forbes list.  Adelson (long a huge backer of Israel’s rightist PM Bibi Netanyahu) single handedly financed Newt Gingrich’s unsuccessful presidential bid.  He is among those who are setting a new standard for campaign spending in this election year.  Adelson and the Kochs are major funders of PACs but they are hardly alone.  The Huffington Post recently published a gallery of the largest donors, which makes for an interesting and disturbing read.   The list includes some labor organizations of course, but super rich individuals far outmatch them.

Much has been written about this year’s extraordinary campaign spending, most recently an excellent column by Frank Bruni.  Much of this accelerated spending can be attributed to the Supreme Court’s striking down much of McCain-Feingold and to its astounding Citizens United decision according corporations the same First Amendment rights as individuals.  Mitt Romney now famously put his own spin on it in declaring, corporations are people.  The issue of equating companies and individuals is an important one, but what interests me here, and why this post begins with Michael Bloomberg, is the unfettered and unchecked ability of billionaires to effectually purchase public office if not for themselves then for those who will represent their interests, translation: do their bidding.  Individual campaign contributors have always had special access to politicians (think Bill Clinton’s Lincoln bedroom guests), but that access has reached new proportions.  Remember, we are not talking about a corporation governed by managers and a board of directors, businesses with employees and often public shareholders, but of individuals responsible solely to themselves.  From that perspective, the Citizens decision is in some ways just as, or more, disturbing with regard to individuals — super rich individuals — as it is with corporations.

That one man can effectively purchase public office — though I’m sure Bloomberg doesn’t see it that way — presents a challenge to our very idea of we the people.  It is just another case, and profound one, of the gulf between idealized and real democracy.  Powerful interests have always played a significant role in both elections and governance.  But the kind of wealth that exists today, or more accurately the number of individuals who occupy that I can buy anything tier of the 1%, is probably rivaled only by the robber baron era.  All this big money spending has fueled the frightening and escalating high cost of campaigns.  

Barack Obama lifted the money bar to new heights in 2008 when he decided to forgo public financing.  The fact that so many of his contributions came in small denominations from a broad spectrum of supporters was heartening, but the total amount raised constituted an unmistakable red flag.  It may not be an exaggeration to call it a political Frankenstein.  That campaign turned out to be the most costly in US history — The Center for Responsive Politics pegs it at $2.4 Billion all in.  Obama’s decision was considered defensive and perhaps it was.  But when history is written, he and his heirs — all of us — are likely to regret it.  I doubt exploding campaign costs will stand as one of the President’s proudest and most positive legacies.  Just weeks ago an extraordinary amount of money went into little Wisconsin’s recall vote, the kind of spending that would have been unthinkable there just a year ago.  That experience alone should remind us how difficult, if not impossible, it is for ordinary people to run for any office these days and at virtually any level.

Among the members of the Supreme Court who are expected to announce some more significant decisions this week are a number of so-called originalists.  They, at least in theory, hold sacrosanct the Constitution, as written.  The Constitution is a great work, as much for its literal components as for the very fact that such a governing document exists.  Amazingly it remains largely relevant and precious.  At the same time, the Framers were just human beings — men to be precise.  They were acting and writing in the context of their time albeit heroically seeking to fashion a document that could endure.  And it largely has.  But they also, being products of their time, made some judgments that made sense then, but in retrospect were probably mistaken, even if well meant.   Among those was life-tenure for the Supreme Court and also the setting of two-year terms for the House.  The first is something to be left to another post; the second is relevant to this discussion of money.

The idea behind the short tenure for House members was to keep the legislators in touch with, and always accountable to, those whom they represented.  It is a noble idea, but one that has contributed heavily to our current legislative stalemate.  From the very early days Representatives, with painfully short terms, were forced to remain in constant campaign mode.  Rather than making them super responsive to constituent needs, it essentially forced them to be seeking support for the next vote almost from the moment they were sworn in for the current term.  That was distraction enough.   Now they have to add to that handshaking burden raising the huge amounts of money it takes to win that next election.  The cash required in large media markets can be and is astronomic.   The combination of non-stop pressing the flesh and filling the coffers is deadening.  Beyond all else, it has become a disincentive to do anything but tow the safe party line whatever that may be at a given time.  It most assuredly doesn’t lead to a profile in courage, something that has virtually disappeared from our political scene.

It could be argued that leaving governance to the rich, those who don’t have to grovel for contributions could reinvigorate political independence.  Michael Bloomberg is beholden to no one and has been able to do some things that others might not have chanced.  His effort to reduce smoking and now the consumption of high sugar beverages are clear examples.  But all that money has a cost.  His kind of independence in a democracy is a mixed blessing.  It affords power that can be abused and it promotes, like it or not, a ruling class mentality that is destined to diminish not enhance the nation.  The disparity that we have these days between those who have much more than they will ever need and those who need much more than they will ever have is growing.  The social implications of this imbalance are hard to ignore.  The money game of politics may be the chicken and it may be the egg.  It doesn’t really matter.  Another record spending election is very bad news for all of us.  That runs across whatever economic barriers may exist and across whatever ideology we may embrace.

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