On Political Books

January/February 2012 The Campaign-Industrial Complex

Political reform will never happen until candidates and donors realize they’re being ripped off.

By Walter Shapiro

Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress—and a Plan to Stop it
by Lawrence Lessig
Twelve, 400 pp.

Campaign costs are increasing faster than almost anything else in this moribund economy, including law school tuition. As recently as 2004, George W. Bush and John Kerry spent about $700 million combined on every aspect of their presidential campaigns. These numbers are now as outmoded as reporters in fedora hats handing their copy to Western Union messengers from the back of whistlestop campaign trains. Projecting from current political fund-raising trends, and using the rule of thumb that 70 percent of all money in politics gets allocated for the media buy, a leading Republican operative and I estimate that Barack Obama and his GOP opponent will end up spending between $1.2 and $1.5 billion on television ads alone in the coming campaign. And that only counts the official spending by the candidates and the party committees on sun-dappled positive spots and grainy voice-of-doom attack ads. Commercials broadcast by lightly regulated super PACs like Karl Rove’s American Crossroads and issue advocacy groups like MoveOn.org could easily add another $500 million to $750 million to push the total spent on TV for the presidential race to more than $2 billion.

Almost all this advertising onslaught will be unleashed during the run-up to the November election. In that final 100-day frenzy, the presidential candidates will become the largest TV advertisers in America, eclipsing General Motors and Procter & Gamble. Nothing in political history will have matched the relentless firepower of next fall’s living-room wars, no matter how close or lopsided the presidential horse-race polls are. And these presidential spots—whose clich├ęd look and stentorian tone are throwbacks to the 1980s—will only constitute part of the campaign ad clutter that helps explain why Americans hate politics. Watching the five p.m. news in a Louisville hotel room in late October 2010, I counted within a single hour thirty separate cookie-cutter political ads (covering the Kentucky Senate race, House contests in Kentucky and Indiana, the Louisville mayoral battle, assorted state legislators on both sides of the Ohio River, and probably a stray county coroner or drain commissioner), totaling fifteen minutes of the half-hour broadcast.

The 2010 off-year elections may soon be remembered as the good old days of spending restraint. It was not until midway through 2010 that independent groups began to fully exploit the loopholes opened up by the Citizens United Supreme Court decision and the lower-court rulings that followed in its wake.

Still, more than $3 billion was spent on political ads in 2010, with $2.3 billion going for broadcast television alone, according to the research firm PQ Media. Since a reasonable projection suggests that another $2 billion in TV ads will accompany the presidential race, it is easy to imagine that campaigns and independent groups will end up lavishing more than $5 billion on the TV component of Campaign 2012. Throw in another $2 billion or so for the other essential aspects of modern campaigning, from pollsters to direct-mail fund-raising, to an assistant press secretary for tweeting. The result: Politics Incorporated may well raise and spend over $7 billion this year, which would put the industry roughly on par with Visa. This is a far cry from the innocent days when Adlai Stevenson recoiled at advertising agencies selling presidential candidates like soap. But in a nation that lavishes $20 billion on pet food annually, moralistic shock about how much money is squandered on campaign advertising can be overwrought. Yes, political commercials generally have all the intellectual heft of the Kardashian family, but the enduring problem is not the lack of an ennobling political discourse between sitcoms. Rather, the real crisis facing American politics is what elected officials have to do to raise the money to pay for those ads.

That, roughly, is the theme of Lawrence Lessig’s stirring new book, Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress—and a Plan to Stop It. Lessig’s focus is on the legislative branch of government (12 percent job approval), but his argument is actually rooted in presidential politics. A passionate Obama partisan since their days together on the faculty of the University of Chicago Law School, Lessig is suffering the agonies of a true believer confronted with a godlike figure who failed. As Lessig puts it, “The idealist in me certainly could not believe that Obama would run a campaign grounded in ‘change’ yet execute an administration that changed nothing of the ‘way that Washington works.’ But the pragmatist in me also could not believe it.… Nothing close to the reform that Obama promised is possible under the current system.” In Lessig’s telling (and he is exceedingly charitable to the least populist Democratic president since Woodrow Wilson), Obama was upended by the desperate need to placate the special interests, which have a choke hold over congressional legislation. A prime illustration: Obama had to buy off the drug industry with new subsidies as a price for winning their grudging support during the titanic struggles over health care legislation. Lessig’s apologia for Obama contains a whiff of “ If the tsar only knew …” The author, now a Harvard Law School professor, also does not fully appreciate the degree to which Obama’s second term, if it occurs, is already hemmed in by the president’s determination to raise about $1 billion for his reelection campaign and the coordinated activities of the Democratic National Committee. Karl Rove has reveled in correctly pointing out that Obama has already attended twice as many reelection fund-raisers as George W. Bush did at a similar point in the calendar eight years ago. On a typical evening in early November, Obama made a pilgrimage to a high-roller fund-raiser (minimum donation: $17,900 per person) at the Washington home of Dwight Bush, a health care executive with a lengthy background on Wall Street, and his wife, Antoinette Bush, a partner at the blue-chip mergers-and-acquisitions law firm Skadden Arps. In short, these are precisely the wrong people for a beleaguered president to be visiting at a time of nearly 9 percent unemployment and Occupy Wall Street rage against the financial elite. At the beginning of his brief remarks to the forty-five Democratic donors gathered in the Bush backyard, Obama declared, “I want to spend some time just in a conversation with you and answering some questions and getting your feedback.” (Washington backyard fundraisers, by the way, are a comparative bargain: New York donors had to pay a minimum of $35,800 each to attend a small dinner with Obama at the Gotham Bar and Grill in late November.

Walter Shapiro , a Washington Monthly contributing editor, is a special correspondent for the New Republic and writes for Yahoo. He is currently covering his ninth presidential campaign.


  • janinsanfran on February 04, 2012 12:01 PM:

    That just might be one of the most lucid descriptions of what's wrong with our democracy that I've ever read.

    The other constraint that will eventually tend to break up the current system is the spread of niche "information" systems in which we all live in personalized information bubbles. Hard to see how this broadcast model translates to that world.

  • school grants on July 26, 2012 5:05 AM:

    The other constraint that will eventually tend to break up the current system is the spread of niche school grants
    "information" systems in which we all live in personalized information bubbles.