I remember years ago asking then House Majority Leader Dick Gephardt why we Democrats persisted in the losing game of trying to raise as much “soft money” as the Republicans. Gephardt, the son of a milkman, the spokesman for working people (and for unions, who for a brief time thought they could beat business at the money game), shook his head sadly. Unilateral disarmament, he asked. When the public doesn’t even vote on the issue?
And we don’t. Every four years, our government goes up for sale, and a few wealthy individuals and interests spend hundreds of millions of dollars courting the person who will become the most powerful person in the world, and we call it democracy. And as much as I hate the system, the cynicism it produces and the appearance of corruption it creates, I understand Hillary Clinton’s announcement that she will not only exploit the Supreme Court’s ill-thought decisions destroying the Watergate reforms, but will personally solicit the “funny” money the Supreme Court now allows.
Barack Obama accepted the funds, but he didn’t personally solicit them. Hillary will take the next step. Progress — if you think the sale of government to the highest bidder should command a higher price, because there’s no doubt that Hillary will raise more by asking herself. Not to mention that her husband is capable of collecting some spare millions.
Disgusting? Sure. The Republicans will be out there calling Hillary a hypocrite for criticizing a system she is about to be in up to her eyeballs. But compared to what? Unilateral disarmament?
Money is the mother’s milk of politics. Having more doesn’t guarantee you a win, but having less is always worse than having more. And the people surrounding you have an insatiable appetite for more — for more polls and focus groups and sophisticated targeting and outreach, not to mention the old standbys of television, radio and mail.
I remember the days when the big costs were phones. No more. Technological superiority doesn’t come cheap, and now that both parties — and not just the Republicans — are capable of raising hundreds of millions of dollars, the opportunities are endless. And the payoff? Where else does a mere $10,000 or $20,000 get you a personal conversation with the person whose decision could mean billions for your business or industry? Will that decision be influenced, even slightly, by something you say? Or might the mere fact that you were there, providing support, perhaps hosting a million-dollar event, be remembered by someone when a decision is to be made?
For all my cynicism, I don’t think most people in politics are, consciously, for sale. There certainly are easier and more pleasant ways to make money. But it’s insidious: If someone has reached out to you, supported you, written you a check for more than your parents ever made in their lifetimes, do you remember their name? Do you take their call? Are you grateful?
And of course we tell ourselves — we all do, everyone does — that we are not that bad, that perhaps they are giving because they already and independently agree with our views, that it isn’t buying a vote, but supporting someone you agree with. But why are those people all of a sudden the candidate’s best “friends”? Friends?
But more than friendship is at stake. And if Hillary wants to be president, she has decided she must not only play this game, but play it better than Democrats have in the past. She’s probably right, which is the saddest part.