WASHINGTON, January 4, 2000 — The peaceful transfer of power is a majestic moment in any democracy, but it is particularly poignant for the most powerful nation on earth. Indeed, through wars and depressions, assassinations and scandals, for more than two centuries the United States of America unflinchingly has chosen its national leader every four years in an elegant exercise "of the people, by the people and for the people."
But the dirty secret of American presidential politics is that the nation’s wealthiest interests largely determine who will be the next president in the year before the election. In every election since 1976, the candidate who has raised the most money by the end of the year preceding the election, and who has been eligible for federal matching funds, has become his party’s presidential nominee.
Earlier this year, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, leading all presidential contenders in public-opinion polls, set the political world on its ear. Without any detailed policy positions, federal government experience or stated vision for the future, and while hardly leaving his home in Austin, he raised $37 million in four months. That is more money at that early point in a presidential campaign than any previous White House contender, more than the 10 other Republican contenders at the time combined, and more than either President Clinton or Bob Dole raised for their campaigns in the entire 1995-96 election cycle.
Mr. Bush’s campaign took in $310,748 a day – that’s $12,947 an hour – in contributions.
He had put his family’s extensive network of political money-raisers under the charge of his best friend, Donald Evans, who told a reporter for The New York Times that he regards his work as a form of public service. “Behind every check, there’s a willing heart,” Mr. Evans said. “To me, it’s not a check, it’s a person, someone who cares about this great country.”
The previous fund-raising record had been set in 1995, when Mr. Clinton raised $26 million in seven months. In the last campaign, the Democratic Party accepted millions of dollars in illegal contributions from foreign nationals, many of whom met personally with the president.
Vice President Al Gore spoke at a fund-raising event at a Buddhist monastery in Los Angeles, and everyone from a Colombian drug trafficker to Chinese arms dealers passed through the White House, accepting access for cash. From January 1995 to August 1996, the White House hosted 103 coffees – attended by 1,544 people seeking “face time” with the president, the vice president and their spouses – who contributed at least $26.4 million to the Democratic Party for the 1996 election.
Such astonishing sums of money don’t come from backyard barbecues or neighborhood bake sales. Such largesse comes from thousands of wealthy people, many of whom want something from the next government, whether it’s headed by Mr. Bush, Mr. Gore or one of the other contenders.
Cash is certainly not enough to ensure future residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. But money is a necessary ingredient for a candidate along with a timely, articulate message, credible professional credentials, confident, attractive presentation and an effective campaign organization. And meanwhile, there is little public consideration of where the money has come from or what the donors seek in return.
The relationship between politicians and their patrons is nothing new. But as the number of primaries and caucuses has increased over the years and become “front-loaded” near the beginning of the formal delegate-hunting season, candidates have been forced to raise virtually all of their cash the year before.
The absurdity of the presidential campaign process was never clearer than in August, when Iowa’s Republican Party staged its quadrennial fund-raising event. This peculiar political carnival – featuring live presidential candidates – fattened the state party’s coffers by at least $1 million. About 650 reporters swarmed around defenseless Ames, Iowa, to cover what veteran journalist David Broder of The Washington Post called “the totally unofficial but historically significant straw poll.”
All of the 23,685 votes cast were paid for, legally. The candidates who bought the most votes finished 1-2, and their showings were front-page news nationwide.
Nine Republican presidential candidates set up operation outside the Hilton Coliseum at Iowa State University. Mr. Bush’s campaign outbid the others and ended up paying $43,500 to rent the prime location – 60,000 square feet of grass – for the event.
What transpired on Aug. 14 was an orgy of free food, entertainment, walk-around celebrities and gifts, with each campaign trying to outdo the others. Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch’s tent had singer Vic Damone and Utah Jazz pro basketball star Karl Malone. Mr. Bush’s had former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach and singers Tracy Byrd, Linda Davis and Emilio Navaira. Steve Forbes had singers Debby Boone and Ronnie Milsap crooning away in a huge, air-conditioned tent with French doors. The multimillionaire publisher also served up 3,100 pounds of pork and set up a miniature amusement park, complete with an inflatable mountain for children to rappel down.
Candidates were judged in part by the goodies they lavished on caucus-goers. Every campaign had T-shirts. Elizabeth Dole’s campaign offered up balloon hats, and Pat Buchanan gave away pot holders. The Bush folks also offered free lunch and dinner. Mr. Hatch provided chicken, Alan Keyes free ice cream. Former Vice President Dan Quayle’s low-budget campaign was criticized for passing out bundles of corn.
The Iowa Republicans who were hauled in for the event were pretty much props, too, like the singers and the barbecue. The Bush and Forbes campaigns each rented a hundred or so buses to fetch their supporters from around Iowa. In the evening, inside the Hilton Coliseum, the only people allowed entry were the voters whose $25 entry fees had been paid for by the candidates.
The winner of the Iowa straw poll was Mr. Bush, whose campaign had shelled out $825,000 for 7,418 votes – about $111 a vote. “I am proud to be here,” Bush told the crowd that night, “for this grassroots exercise in democracy.” Mr. Forbes finished second, at an even steeper cost: He spent nearly $2 million for 4,921 votes – about $400 a vote.
Change for the worse
You can’t help wondering how Abraham Lincoln or Harry Truman would fare in today’s political, mega-fund-raising milieu. Would they be willing to dial for dollars for several hours each day and, with frozen smiles, shake thousands upon thousands of strangers’ hands at hundreds of fund-raising events throughout the country, a full year before the election?
Veteran newspaperman Jules Witcover has covered presidential campaigns for 40 years, and in his new book, No Way To Pick A President, he wrote, “This depressing state is not what our Founding Fathers envisioned. They never foresaw the election of the American president evolving into an all-consuming competition for campaign funds to feed a political technocracy dominated by people whose first and often only loyalty is to themselves – to their own influence, power, celebrity, and greed.”
The stark fact today is that, increasingly, good people are not entering politics for a host of reasons, particularly financial ones. In 1998, there were more than 90 uncontested elections for the U.S. House of Representatives. Several respected public figures declined to run for president this year, and five GOP candidates have already dropped out, largely because of money.
In the past two election cycles, record-shattering sums of private, special-interest money have poured into the political process. We have seen the worst campaign-finance scandals since Watergate. And, at the same time, we have witnessed the worst voter disillusionment in more than half a century.
Even Mr. Clinton’s impeachment was related to campaign finance. Monica Lewinsky became a White House intern because a friend of her family gave more than $330,000 to the Democratic Party.
How did things get so bad?
The short answer is that politicians have become so closely tied to powerful economic interests that they have lost the esteem and trust of the American people.
In 1996, 100 million eligible voters declined to participate in this democracy, the lowest turnout (49 percent) in a presidential election year since 1924, and the second-lowest since 1824.
Political and character issues aside, few doubted the ability of either man to serve as chief executive in 1996. That’s not true this time.
In recent weeks, fairly or unfairly, Mr. Bush has been criticized as an “empty suit,” kind of a Dan Quayle with charisma. His apparent lack of knowledge about foreign affairs has become embarrassing fodder for late night talk shows, political cartoons and the other GOP candidates.
Signs of disenchantment abound. Earlier this year, pollsters Peter Hart and Robert Teeter did a survey for the Council for Excellence in Government. Their report, “America Unplugged,” found that 60 percent of the American people feel disconnected from government.
Reform bills die
Meanwhile, the ruling class of politicians and patrons has not felt compelled to open democracy to greater citizen participation. Campaign-finance reform legislation has been consistently killed for the past 20 years. The process reached new lows in 1996.
“The abuses of the campaign-finance system, as practiced by both parties in 1996 . . . destroyed what was left of this country’s campaign-finance laws,” Elizabeth Drew wrote in her 1996 book, The Corruption of American Politics. “There were now effectively no limits on how much money could be raised and spent in a campaign, and the limits on how it could be raised were rendered meaningless. Powerful people had undermined the law.”
In this new Gilded Age of twenty-something millionaires and ostentatious materialism from Manhattan to Silicon Valley, we are witnessing almost incomprehensible wealth wash over the political system. The same 535 members of Congress, two political parties and presidential candidates who raised $2 billion in 1992 and $2.4 billion in 1996 are well on their way to amassing more than $3 billion in this election cycle. And that’s just the money we know about.
This game is too rich for ordinary folks. In 1996, for example, only four percent of the American people gave money to candidates for any political office. Only one-fourth of one percent gave $200 or more to candidates for federal office.
At least 10 people who have tested the presidential waters this time are millionaires – Lamar Alexander, Bill Bradley, Pat Buchanan, George W. Bush, Elizabeth Dole, Steve Forbes, Al Gore, Orrin Hatch, John McCain and Dan Quayle. Millionaires also make up more than a third of the Senate, even though fewer than one percent of Americans are so fortunate.
It is hardly coincidental that over the years, Congress has substantially reduced both the top income-tax rate and the tax on capital gains. Or that Congress and its banking patrons killed legislation that would have eliminated bank ATM fees. Or that Congress has failed to pass legislation that would have required employers to help pay for health-care insurance. Or that Congress has passed special “cheap labor’ immigration-exemption laws and Y2K liability exemption laws at the request of Silicon Valley companies. The list of special favors for the privileged few is quite, quite long.
From time to time, the American people express their outrage over the deterioration of politics into a mercenary, pay-to-play process. In 1974, just weeks after Richard Nixon’s resignation because of the Watergate scandal, new president Gerald Ford signed historic campaign finance-reform legislation.
“The times,” he said, “demand this legislation.”
Archibald Cox, the former Watergate independent prosecutor, said that there is much less trust in government today than there was during the Watergate years. He also said that campaign finance abuses are “far worse today.”
“The abuses are worse partly because there’s much more money and . . . there’s much more pressure on those who receive the money to yield to the wishes of those who give it,” he said. “I’m speaking of a lot of elected officials across the board, but particularly in Congress.” These days, Lincoln’s idealistic view of American democracy, as government of the people, by the people and for the people, seems far away.