Political reform will never happen until candidates and donors realize they’re being ripped off.
Without a doubt, the Lessig plan (which has been carefully designed to pass constitutional muster) would be a vast improvement over the current system—just as high-minded proposals for regulating handguns and curtailing the political power of the NRA would save lives. Alas, we live in the real world, in which new major campaign-reform legislation seems as much a liberal fantasy as effective handgun regulation. When it comes to reforming political finance, the core of the problem is that the same Congress that has prospered from the current system would be called upon to change it. To get around this obstacle, Lessig offers a series of impractical scenarios that range from protest candidates who bedevil incumbents in both parties with quixotic primary challenges to, yikes, a full-fledged constitutional convention. But ultimately Lessig admits that his democracy vouchers—even if they miraculously sprang into existence—would not eliminate the loopholes opened up by the Citizens United decision and its ripple effects. As he puts it with admirable in- tellectual honesty, “Even if we win the battle for funding reform, we could still lose the larger war.” The reason is that independent spending by super PACs and issue advocacy groups—funded by unlimited and, in some cases, undisclosed donations—could dwarf the $6 billion or so raised by democracy vouchers. The higher the percentage of overall campaign costs that comes from independent groups, the more candidates after the election are likely to feel beholden to them, even if there was no formal coordination during election season. The sad fate of the McCain-Feingold Act should remind us how quickly even the best reform legislation can be eviscerated by court decisions, regulatory permissiveness, and the creative ploys of political consultants. As a result, the Lessig plan would probably have the unintended consequence of moving the locus of power in politics from candidates and parties to independent groups on both the right and left.
Before we head for the window ledge in complete despair over the chances of even modest changes in the crass calculus that governs Washington, let us return to where we started—the roughly $1.5 billion that both 2012 presidential nominees will spend on TV ads. From the outset, the Obama political team has planned on bludgeoning his 2012 Republican rival into submission by massively outspending him. There may indeed be no connection between that resolve and the restraint that Obama and company displayed toward reining in Wall Street in 2009 and 2010, but a skeptic would be forgiven for thinking otherwise.
At minimum, the widespread suspicion that Obama is beholden to his campaign contributors both adds to the voters’ corrosive cynicism about government and accentuates Democratic disillusion with the president. Whatever the policy implications, it is undoubtedly true that as president (and as a 2008 candidate), Obama is exceedingly familiar with the color schemes and dimensions of certain Park Avenue living rooms. This assiduous presidential courting of the Democratic Party’s financial elite may ultimately bring in, say, an extra $100 million for the Obama campaign. But it is highly questionable whether the TV ads that money will buy will be enough to compensate for the politically damaging perceptions that flow from the president’s fund-raising ties to the mega-rich.
This is where most analyses of the problems flowing from our Gilded Age system of political finance end. It is as if the Wordsworth verse were simply “Getting, we lay waste our powers” rather than “Getting and spending.” And it is the spending side of the equation—what Politics Incorporated does with the money that candidates can mortgage their integrity to raise—that deserves equal scrutiny.
The dirty secret of major-league politics is that a significant portion of the money spent on TV spots is wasted. (Presidential primaries—especially during the early phase when candidates are introducing themselves to voters—are a rare exception to this general rule). The reason why voters are unmoved by most campaign spots in presidential campaigns is obvious: the effectiveness of television ads is inversely proportional to the amount of other information that voters have about the candidates. The presidential debates, the national conventions, and the incessant news coverage mean that few voters will lack a sharp sense of Obama and his Republican challenger. The 2012 election will be, more than anything, a referendum on Obama’s first four years in office. All the gauzy commercials in the world cannot erase the harsh economic memories of Obama’s first term. (When Ronald Reagan ran for reelection in 1984, the economy was roaring back at such a rapid pace that it justified the “Morning in America” spots that Ad Age later judged the best political commercials of the twentieth century.)
Okay, in an election as close as the one in 2000, it may be easy to imagine that the outcome could have hinged on a single TV ad (“Please be careful when you fill out your butterfly ballot. You don’t want to vote for Pat Buchanan by mistake”). But in most cases, commercials during the fall presidential election campaign are instantly forgettable. To illustrate: can you remember a single commercial aired by Obama or John McCain after the conventions in 2008? I have been covering presidential politics for four decades, and I couldn’t conjure up a single ad without prompting. Part of the explanation for the vapidity of these commercials is that, with the White House at stake and most decisions dictated by a committee, presidential campaigns tend to avoid anything risky or edgy, which is why political advertising is rarely as original as corporate spots.
Political reporters—relieved to be writing about an objective measurement like money raised—are often credulous when it comes to looking at campaign fundraising in isolation rather than linking it to how the money is likely to be actually spent. For example, many Democrats must have felt a bitter chill when the New York Times reported in mid-October,
Mitt Romney has raised far more money than Mr. Obama this year from the firms that have been among Wall Street’s top sources of donations for the two candidates. That gap underscores the growing alienation from Mr. Obama among many rank-andfile financial professionals and Mr. Romney’s aggressive and successful efforts to woo them.
You could just imagine loyal Democrats reading this and instantly lamenting the passage of Dodd-Frank. A few days later, the Washington Post responded with its own article, suggesting that Obama was doing fine in fund-raising among the financial elite when you also count the money donated to the Democratic National Committee for the 2012 campaign. But the Post story also overhyped the gravity of this financial competition: “The battle for Wall Street cash has become a crucial subtext in the 2012 campaign.”
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