Grab That Cash with Both Hands and Make a Stash
It’s all about the money, stupid:
Sen. Barack Obama raised at least $25 million for his presidential campaign in the first quarter of the year, nearly matching Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s record-setting total and making it all but certain that Democrats will face a costly and protracted battle for their party’s nomination.
Collectively, the Democratic candidates raised nearly $80 million in the first quarter, outpacing the Republican field for the first time since the Federal Election Commission began closely tracking such figures in the 1970s. Republicans took in just over $50 million in that same time frame, suggesting that a restive electorate and creative Internet strategies have fundamentally shifted the fundraising landscape for both parties.
Well, okay. There does seem to be “a restive electorate” and the landscape may very well have been “fundamentally shifted”. And, to the extent that this helps the Democrats, I’m fine with it.
Let’s not get too excited about it. Beyond 2008, that is, beyond the Democrats’ immediate electoral interests, lies the very serious problem of the buying of political office.
To be sure, money has always played a key role in political life. What is going on now — the focus on fundraising long before the election — isn’t new. And it may not be all bad. In fact, it may, in its own way, be rather democratic. As Steve Benen puts it, “the number of donors this year is at least as impressive as the dollar amounts”. This reflects “a fundamental shift in how engaged Americans participate in the process”. “Thereâ€™s never been anything like this level of involvement in campaign history. Ever.”
But is American democracy — or democracy generally — truly served by what amounts to the monetarization of the political process? Or, rather, are the American people truly served by the primacy of money in their political system? Although more and more people may be donating, there remains the obvious fact that most people do not donate. The system may be more democratic, broadly speaking, now that more people are donating, but democracy, strictly speaking, is not defined by political donations. It is, to be precise, a system of popular rule, not a system of popular donations to the rulers. And, indeed, it is hardly a stretch to argue, as many do, that money, however “democratic” in origin, compromises the integrity — that is, corrupts — democracy.
Just look at the numbers: Clinton raised $26 million in Q1 2007, Obama raised $25 million, and Edwards raised $14 million. On the other side, Romney raised $23 million, Giuliani raised $15 million, and McCain raised $12.5 million. That’s big money. And that’s what people are now talking about — who’s ahead and who’s behind in the money game that has taken over so much of big-time American politics. Because money may not guarantee victory, but it sure helps.
Which is not to say that I advocate the public funding of American politics — for reasons associated with the work I do, I don’t want to get into that here. What I would ask, however, is if a system that essentially requires candidates to spend so much time fundraising, including those who are already in office and who seek to remain there, a system in which money matters to such a degree that winning or losing often depends on how much of it, or how little of it, a candidate has, is truly democratic.
Or is this so-called “democracy” rather more like Major League Baseball? Occasionally a “small-market” team (A’s, Twins) wins, or at least comes close, but more often than not the “big-market” teams (Yankees, Red Sox, Mets, Cardinals, Angels, Dodgers, Braves), that is, the teams with the most money to spend, and even more narrowly the teams that can blow through the luxury tax threshold, are the ones left competing for the World Series year after year.
Baseball fans, it seems to me, are best served by a league in which there is genuine competitiveness, in which teams win or lose because of how they play and how they are managed, not because of how much money they have. Likewise, the American people, like all democratic rulers, are best served by a political system in which candidates win or lose because of who they are and what they stand for, not because of how well they play the money game, that is, by a system in which voters choose who will represent them based on whatever factors they individually and collectively deem significant, not by a system in which candidates seek to outdo each other with respect to raising money and buying office, however “democratic” their monetary support might be.
For more, see the Anonymous Liberal, who examines “the absurdity of the money race”: Iowa is the key primary state, but “there’s only so much money you can spend in Iowa”.