Money is often called the first primary, because there’s nothing else out there to be officially judged by the FEC reports. There are no caucuses; there are no conventions; there is no voting. Real people don’t get involved in the process until well after a nominee has been chosen. The only real way to have influence in politics is to have money, or maybe to live in Iowa.
Money is easy. Since the U.S. Supreme Court decisions in the Citizens United cases, the estimates of how much is and will be spent in these contests range in the ten billions. And why not, considering the size of the acquisition?
So there was Jeb Bush, mingling and reportedly demanding commitments from his financial supporters — excuse me, friends — while other Republicans were complaining to reporters that it was “too soon.” The sad truth is it’s never too soon.
When I was in college, I was always taught the pluralist theory, which holds that good comes from the likes of us doing our best. There always seemed to be one particular problem with this theory: Where were the chairs for the disenfranchised? As Bob Dole so famously noted, there aren’t many PACs on Capitol Hill for poor and hungry children. There aren’t PACs for a host of other issues no less important than those the candidates will address among the fat cats at supper.
And yet we do absolutely nothing. Our democracy rests in the hands of a few, with virtually everyone else no more than a background extra.
So who are these people who sit in back rooms discussing who should lead the country? Who elected them to anything, much less to serve as the screening committee to whom every potential candidate must pay his or her dues?
Of course, everyone in Washington can tell you exactly who they are: industry groups, associations, maps color-coded to show you how many delegates they have in each of your states. Sometimes I like to think that all those circles my friend Tully used to draw on white boards have coalesced into something (not something he could easily stomach). This is where the money primary is being played out — in offices all over Washington where consultants working with billionaires will spend upward of billions of dollars in order to influence the outcome of our campaign. And it is all completely legal.
In Iowa and New Hampshire, you’ll have kids charging around from office to office recruiting, but they’ll probably be acting at the direction of some grand plan being hatched even now. The first primary has begun.
So would-be congressmen try to keep awake during the speeches about Iowa, and no matter who you are, you’re staying in a hotel with lousy plumbing. Or at least that was the idealized version of it — that there would be participation in the process — and that was why there was so much jockeying for the order of the initial three primaries. But then came Citizens United, the decision that opened the floodgates to campaign spending and will succeed.
But I believe there is still something to be said for a system that ensures that a person allowed to achieve such enormous power first have to spend the dead of winter in Iowa and New Hampshire. I once asked a man at our campaign rally if he was supporting my candidate. “Oh,” he responded to me, “I’ve only met him twice.” There has to be something between that kind of democracy and the billionaire bingo for which there is no chair for the needy kids.