Politics & Policy

Funding Democracy

Our democratic society trips along and we become accustomed to practices which, if viewed for the first time, would strike us as extraordinary; maybe infamous. Like the hardening correlation in politics between money and success. A recent enactment of this is: Hillary vs. Gore.

Here is how it goes. Mrs. Clinton has amassed a great deal of money ostensibly to finance her race for reelection in New York State. She holds the Senate seat once held by my brother, best remembered as “the sainted junior senator from New York.” In early spring of 1976, facing a reelection contest in November, he had about $200,000 in financial commitments. Hillary has $17.1 million. Normal people ask, Why on earth does she need that much money to fight a reelection campaign in New York? She is 1) the incumbent, 2) hugely well known, 3) facing an opponent who is mostly a stagehand of the two-party system — somebody has to run on the Republican ticket to oppose the incumbent, enter Jeanine Pirro.

Well of course the money is being amassed with something entirely different in mind. Mrs. Clinton wants to run for president in 2008. That is a costly enterprise. Political savant Robert Novak summarizes, “Her current fund-raising tour is aimed at bringing in an additional $40 million.”

The final objective is to achieve the presidency. The immediate objective is to achieve the nomination, and this requires confronting and beating other contenders, most prominent among them Sen. John Kerry and former Vice President Al Gore. Backers of Mr. Gore are saying that he can raise more money even than Mrs. Clinton. Gore is, in one sense, the senior figure, as the Democrat who last held senior office, and no doubt he will draw on establishment Democratic donors to put together a fighting fund.

Donors would seem to have been responding generously to the Hillary campaign, but there are complaints from loyalists. If you spent the night in the White House in the Lincoln Bedroom when Bill Clinton was president, what do you owe to Mrs. Clinton when she runs for president? When Bill was still president and Hillary entered politics, 40 percent of sleepovers in the White House contributed to her campaign. But only 20 percent of the sleepovers have contributed to Hillary’s current campaign. On this disparity University of Virginia political scholar Larry Sabato has commented. “FOBs,” he informs us — Friends of Bill — “are not necessarily FOHs.” He adds, “Think of the two of them — who’s the one who collects friends? Bill.”

One needs almost a transfusion of orthodoxy to ask what would seem the obvious question, for fear of being cast aside as an incurable naïf. Still, let’s ask it: Why do people finance campaigns so heavily? Discard the money, which can be thought of as ideological sentimentalism. Some people will subscribe money to any conspicuous Democrat running for high office, and indeed for complementary Republicans. Why did Chevy Chase donate $4,200 to Hillary? The gift was noticed in the New York Post, which ran a list of top contributors. “The biggest giver was Chevy Chase, the coolest man in the city for a brief period in guess-which-decade,” a reporter commented. Chevy Chase does not expect to be named ambassador to the Czech Republic — he is just paying dues as a member of the Democratic tribe.

But what of the big-time gifts in soft money? George Soros has become a historic figure in American politics by passing out $24 million toward the election of John Kerry. Perhaps just as $4,200 from Chevy Chase tells us not very much, $24 million from an eccentric billionaire tells us not very much. But $40 million in anticipatory funding of a campaign raises questions of democratic principle. Are we supposed to resign ourselves that the next Democratic candidate for president will be Gore or Hillary, depending on which of the two raises more money? And what are the donors tacitly expecting, in return for their contributions?

A few years ago we attempted financial reform, and more or less gave up, on the grounds that reform was inconsistent with individual liberties. Chevy Chase could be held down to $4,200, but George Soros, observing one or two traffic lights, can’t be held down at all. It all conduces to a queasy suspicion that the democratic ideal is up for sale.


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