Why shouldn’t money and politics mix?

Liberals once complained about candidates ‘buying elections’. Yet now that Obama is raking it in, they’ve shut up.

Helen Searls

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Last night, Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama presented a half-hour infomercial simultaneously on three major network TV channels (Fox, NBC and CBS) and the Spanish-language channel Univision. The advert disrupted the primetime TV schedule. It was even alleged to have delayed the start of a crucial World Series baseball game (a claim denied by the channel showing the game, Fox). Such a high-profile, extended piece of political advertising is unprecedented in modern times. The airtime alone is said to be costing the campaign a million dollars per channel. But such is the fundraising power of the Obama campaign that these costs will make hardly a dent in the presidential hopeful’s purse.

Obama has smashed all records for political fundraising. He has raised a staggering $603million and counting in his bid to become the next president of the United States of America. This is more than the combined total of sums raised by Democrat and Republican presidential candidates in the 2004 election – which itself was record-breaking. In September alone, Obama raised $150million.

In money terms, Obama has won the battle with Republican candidate John McCain hands down. In September, Senator McCain, like all modern presidential contenders, accepted public funds to pay for the last stretch of his campaign. In so doing, the Republican received $84million in public money, but at the same time forfeited his right to augment those funds with additional fundraising. Obama, by contrast, turned down public funds – the first candidate to do so since 1976, when the current framework was established in the wake of the Watergate scandal. And in so doing, he freed himself to raise huge sums from private sources.

Given the sums raised by Obama, it is surprising that there has been so little outcry about it. For many years, ‘campaign finance reform’ has been a burning concern for Democrats, overseas critics and other reformers. We have long been told that there is ‘too much’ money in American politics. The plethora of checks and balances that now exist around political fundraising are in many ways a result of this general liberal outcry against the ‘unholy mixing of money and politics’.

As recently as the last presidential election, the Democrats cried foul when lobbying groups like the so-called ‘Swift Boat Veterans’ used their deep pockets to buy advertising to shape the outcome. And I think it’s fair to say that were the tables turned, and it was the Republicans rather than Democrats raising such record sums, we would once again be overwhelmed by complaints that the election had been ‘bought’ and that ‘money interests’ were unfairly shaping the result. Yet this time around, the outcry is non-existent.

Some claim that there is something new and different – maybe even pure – in the way that Obama has raised money. Certainly Obama has been tremendously successful in attracting small individual donors to his cause. Over half of his money has come from small donors – that is, individuals contributing less that $200 to the campaign. And the Democratic party machine has done much to make the most of the internet to raise funds from new sources. Not a day goes by when everyone who has ever had the remotest contact with the campaign doesn’t receive an email begging for funds. But it would be wrong to see Obama’s fundraising efforts as totally new.

The truth is Obama has outperformed anyone in the history of presidential race in all forms of political fundraising. He has been successful at the old as well as the new way of raising cash.

I spoke to Bill Buzenburg from watchdog group the Center for Public Integrity to shed some light on this. He explained: ‘The truth is that another half of the money he’s raising is raised the traditional old way, if you will, coming in from major bundlers, hundreds of people who are collecting money in small donations.’

Bundling donations is one of the traditional ways to get around individual campaign contribution limits. There are restrictions on how much an individual can donate to a campaign. At this election, the limit is $2,300. Bundled contributions are a collection of individual donations that have been bundled together by an organisation or donor. By pooling the contributions, some restrictions can be glossed over. One organisation, for example, might gather together contributions from a group of family members, including children and relatives. In such instances, it is hazy as to whether all the contributions actually come from the named individuals (not many toddlers have $2,300 in their piggy banks). And so the rules are fudged.

Such bundles are, as Bill Buzenburg explains, ‘orchestrated in many cases by a corporation. A corporation can’t give, but members of the senior management can contribute to a bundler… That bundler is expecting access and influence for a contribution.’

Barack Obama has not only received money from the small donors. He has also received more bundled contributions than any other presidential candidate. This includes contributions from all the hot-button industrial groups and corporations like pharmaceutical firms, the healthcare insurers and energy producers. Of course, money does talk in politics. If Obama wins the White House, it will be as hard for him to ignore the calls from his big donors as any other president.

But Obama’s record-breaking fundraising has done something to change the political landscape on this issue. It is not that his money is ‘pure’ or somehow less tainted than money raised in past years. It is rather that his tremendous success at raising huge amounts of money has hopefully once and for all silenced the liberal and overseas critics who have for so long complained about the mixing of money in politics.

There is nothing wrong with people spending a lot of money on their beliefs. If you believe that politics can really change things, then why wouldn’t you spend money on it? It is something that corporations, trade unions, lobbyists and, of course, lots of very ordinary people ought to be able to do. In a country that has long been berated by the world for its political apathy and low voter turnout, this is a signifier of political engagement that is too often dismissed.

From the standpoint of democracy, it is a refreshing to see so many people so taken by a candidate or by politics that they want to give some of their hard-earned cash to help bring about a political outcome. We can argue about who they should give their money to and we can complain that the political advertising spots are cheesy, ill-informed and tedious, but the mixing of money and politics is not inherently bad.

Obama’s success at raising money has exposed all the moaning and complaining about money and politics for what it really was – sour grapes. Now it seems the only people complaining about immoral fundraising tactics are conservative bloggers. They grumble that Obama’s campaign has taken undocumented donations, donations from individuals who give false names, donations that exceed the individual contribution limits or, even worse, donations from foreign nationals (1). But these complaints have, to date, had only limited resonance. Most people see them as just desperate gripes from bad losers.

Amongst liberals, the old mantra against politics and money has evaporated. Obama’s war chest is allowing him to do things few Democrats dared to dream were remotely possible. His ‘freedom of speech’, or at least his ability to speak frequently and at length, is now boundless. Such is the reach of his money that not only can he buy up primetime TV for the night, he can also run adverts in every state every night, he has campaign staff on the payroll in every state, offices in nearly all the counties of battleground states, and he has even embedded adverts in popular video games like Guitar Hero.

With such a dazzling operation, the liberal money critics seem to have vanished. Could it be it was not so much money and politics that they objected to, but rather Republican money and politics? Maybe an Obama win will silence all those who want to restrict money in politics once and for all. That certainly would be a political sea change.

Helen Searls is executive producer at Feature Story News in Washington, DC.

(1) See Bombshell: Obama Neck Deep in Breaking Campaign Finance Scandal, The Patriot Room, 1 October 2008

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