Buying the Election?

Do you remember that moment in 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 United Nations 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 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. (source: Joe Nocera – NYTimes – 09/10/2012)

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 you had arrived as a serious candidate; today no candidate in his right mind would want to be so constrained. 4 years ago, Obama became the first presidential candidate since campaign reform was instituted to opt out of public financing for 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 President Obama could end up spending more than $1 billion each. They seem to spend more time fund-raising than pressing flesh with voters. According to Brendan Doherty, a political science professor at the United States Naval Academy, Obama has held six fund-raisers 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)4s, which are essentially a form of campaign money-laundering, allowing wealthy people contribute millions toward supposedly “independent” spending on campaign advertising, polling and other expensive campaign goodies. Sheldon Adelson, 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 remains 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 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)4s are hardly independent. Karl Rove, who absolutely knows what 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 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 company wants. What feels different now is that the sums are so large, and that it has 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 e-mail. It’s not. 


Acerca de ignaciocovelo
Consultor Internacional

2 Responses to Buying the Election?

  1. (ALSO THIS LAND) Another day begins with a sound softer than a finger-snap, in an Ohio place called Elyria. In the central square of this small city, the gushing water fountain applauds the early-morning chorus of sparrows. A car clears its throat. A door slams. And then: click. The faint sound comes as 7:00 flashes on the clock of the Lorain National Bank building, looming over the square. The pull of a string — click — has sent life pulsing through a neon sign, announcing to all of Elyria that, once more, against the odds, Donna’s Diner is open. Its proprietor, Donna Dove, 57, ignites the grill that she seems to have just turned off, so seamlessly do her workdays blend into one endless shift. She wears her blond hair in a ponytail and frames her hazel eyes with black-rimmed glasses that tend to get smudged with grill grease. She sees the world through the blur of her work. A dozen years ago, Donna found a scrap of serendipity on the sidewalk: a notice that a local mom-and-pop restaurant was for sale. After cooking for her broken family as a child, after cooking for county inmates at one of her many jobs, she had come to see food as life’s binding agent, and a diner as her calling. She maxed out her credit cards, cashed in her 401(k) and opened a business to call her own. Donna’s Diner. Donna’s. You know this place: It is Elyria’s equivalent to that diner, that coffee shop, that McDonald’s. From the vantage point of these booths and Formica countertops, the past improves with distance, the present keeps piling on, and a promising future is practically willed by the resilient patrons. It is where the recession and other issues of the day are lived as much as discussed. Where expectations for a certain lifestyle have been lowered and hopes for salvation through education and technology have been raised. Where the presidential nominees Barack Obama and Mitt Romney each hope that his plan for a way back will resonate with the Donna Doves, who try to get by in places like Elyria — where the American dream they talk about can sometimes seem like a tease. But for now, at least, the door to Donna’s is open. So take a seat. Have a cup of coffee. Maybe some eggs. This morning, as usual, Pete Aldrich is helping Donna through the new-dawn isolation, turning on the coffee and being compensated by food and tips from the occasional delivery. In his early 50s, well-educated and from regional royalty, he has hit some hard times, and may or may not have slept in his car last night, cocooned by his bundled possessions. Pete tries, though, he tries. He often leaves straight from Donna’s for a job interview, hustling out with purpose, no matter that his thick-lensed eyeglasses are missing one arm. Something will turn up. That is the communal hope. Donna, for example, is dogged by the day’s anxieties. Why are her receipts going down? What lunch special can she offer to clean out the refrigerator? Should she buy less perch for her Friday fish fry? Can she slide a month on her electric bill? Since she already doesn’t have health insurance, what else can she cut? “I’m just going in circles and circles and circles,” Donna says one day, gazing through smudged glasses. “And not getting anyplace” (…..)

  2. Professor Uziel Nogueira says: Elyria, Ohio and Donna’s Diner reminds me of many mid western cities that I visited while doing graduate work at MSU in the mid 70s. At that time, the first oil shock of 73 had hit the industrial mid western industrial belt with devastating impact. The process of manufacturing job losses -that time to Japan- had started to take place. Many cities never fully recovered from the process of hollowing out of the manufacturing industry. Jobs there were lost, never returned. The challenges for the mid western cities today are many times more difficult than the 70s. China today has a dominant position in manufacturing and jobs creation while American workers and their few defenders in the Congress/Senate fight a losing battle to maintain jobs in key industries such as automobile, defense and aerospace.

    Unfortunately, the tale of Donna’s Diner is not about the past, it is about the future for many cities in the hinterland of the US.


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