FRED WOLFERMAN: Filthy Lucre: Campaign Spending Hits Obscene Level
Well. Hillary has "loaned" herself something around $20 million in campaign funds. I have to say I find that pretty offensive. Still, it's chump change relative to recent office-purchasing efforts.
Mitt Romney supposedly was in for $50 million. John Corzine allegedly spent more than that to buy the governorship of New Jersey. (New Jersey?) Michael Bloomberg spent a bundle to become mayor of New York -- and was for a time rumored to be interested in buying the presidency too. Ross Perot dropped many millions in presidential runs in 1992 and 1996. John Kerry wisely confined himself to his wife's money.
These efforts haven't always worked: Perot failed, Romney failed, Mrs. Kerry failed and at this writing Hillary appears ready to pack it in. Still, you have to wonder what kind of candidate values public service and his own ego so highly that he is willing to spend a whole lot of his own money for the opportunity to campaign endlessly and, if elected, to suffer the slings and arrows of disgruntled voters and pundits.
Sure, you can walk away from the presidency and get rich (witness Bill Clinton). But the governorship of New Jersey? Besides, with the exception of the always-exceptional Clintons, most of these people were not in it for the money. They all have plenty of that. They run because they believe they have the answer to whatever the problem du jour is, and living in the limelight has some magic appeal.
We have had plenty of wealthy-to-rich presidents -- the Roosevelts, Kennedy, Johnson, Reagan, the Bushes -- but campaigning was cheaper then, and perhaps fundraising was easier when people had more faith in a positive result. While I would be the last to say there is anything wrong with being rich, or, for that matter, with rich people holding public office, there seems to be something undemocratic about their buying it with their own money.
Yes, it is perfectly legal, First Amendment and all that. Mark Hanna, turn-of-the-20th-century Republican kingmaker, once answered when asked what was the most important thing in politics, "Money." Asked what was second, he paused and said, "I can't think of anything." That was before television, consultants, entourages and air travel bloated costs and budgets to levels Mark Hanna never dreamed of.
This year's election will, once again, be the most expensive in history. I haven't checked, but I would guess that every election has been the most expensive in history, or at least that the trend line has moved steadily upward since 1788.
It is more than a little ironic that most of this money is spent attempting to make millionaires look like Joe Six-Pack. Candidates boast about funds raised, not about loans to themselves. It's OK to have a lot of money as long as it's given to you; it's not so OK to have a lot yourself, which is why it is so difficult to get a tax return or a straight answer out of a candidate when the question of personal finances comes up.
Politics simply represents an extension of our national ambivalence about wealth. It's fine to be rich as long as you don't talk about it. The occasional Donald Trump only makes everyone else hew more closely to this unwritten rule.
The world has fairly consistently been ruled by rich people. In most cases, both historic and present, these people became rich after gaining power. Idi Amin and Vladimir Putin come to mind. On balance, it is probably better that they become rich before gaining power; the incentives for theft and abuse are at least reduced.
We are going to hear a lot about campaign balance sheets in the coming months: the purity of Obama's small-donor driven funds, the hidden wealth of Cindy McCain, and possibly the perfectly legal buyout of Hillary's self-debt by the Obama campaign, in order to lock up her support.
This may all be a bit titillating, but it also seems tawdry. There's no question it costs a lot to win, or even compete in, an election, especially for the presidency; but it seems to me that using large amounts of your own money to do so smacks of a little too much ego, a little too much self-righteousness, in a job that requires a lot of humility.
There is no easy answer to this. Candidates have a constitutional right to spend as much as they wish of anybody's money. Efforts to limit funds to federally provided amounts fail in the face of independent contributions in ever-larger amounts. These contributions are not usually made in the spirit of good, clean political debate; they are made because somebody wants something.
Maybe it's better if we elect self-funding rich people after all; at least they can stick to their own agendas.
Fred Wolferman lives in Southern Pines. Contact him by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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