The 2010 election cost more than $4 billion—a staggering sum. It’s large enough that some of my colleagues, like Daniel Gross, have wondered if, in a weak economy, we shouldn’t have elections every year. “Quantitative electioneering,” he calls it.
But it’s also a depressing sum. Some of that money came from small donors, people who felt strongly about the direction of their country and dug into their own pockets to make it better. That’s all for the good. But much of it came from corporations trying to buy access with winners, secret donors trying to purchase the votes that will make them richer, and ideological hit groups that delight in the scurrilous attacks that candidates themselves would never make. Pity our democracy, yes. But pity our politicians, too.
Sen. Evan Bayh is retiring this year. The Democrat didn’t lose his race, and he wasn’t down in the polls. He’s just, well, leaving. And one of the reasons is that he’s tired of the money. “It’s miserable,” he says. “It is not uncommon to have a fundraiser for breakfast, for lunch, and for dinner, and if you have spare time in between, you go to an office off Capitol Hill and you dial for dollars. Then the weekend rolls around, and you get on a plane and travel the countryside with a tin cup in your hand. And it gets worse each cycle.”
The problem, he argues, isn’t just that raising money is unpleasant. It isn’t just that it gives the rich too much sway. And it isn’t just that it makes people cynical (“You want to be engaged in an honorable line of work,” he says, “but they look at us like we’re worse than used-car salesmen”). It’s that it means you can’t do your job. “When candidates … are spending 90 percent of their time raising money,” Bayh says, “that’s time they’re not spending with constituents or with public-policy experts.”
Which raises the obvious question: why don’t they do something about it? If raising money is so miserable, and so corrupting, and so distracting, and so discrediting, why not publicly finance campaigns? Or strip away the anonymity of outside groups? Or pass a bill that matches small-donor donations, making it easier for politicians to fund their candidacies by exciting voters rather than lobbyists?
The answer is depressing: few politicians like the current system, but they’re better at gaming it than everyone else is. They’ve got donor networks, relationships with lobbyists, corporate friends, and activist groups that will help them. Their challengers don’t. “The people in the position to make these rules have succeeded in the system as it exists,” Bayh says. “Asking them to change the rules from which they’ve benefited is difficult.”
That’s not the only way in which the system serves to protect incumbents. Consider the lifestyle Bayh’s outlining: fundraisers three times a day, more on the weekends. Dialing for dollars. (Not to mention the money you’re supposed to raise for your party to help others get elected. “The Senate is a dues-paying organization now,” says Bayh. “Junior members have to raise this much, committee chairs have to raise that much. Find that in a civics book.”) Who would want to run for office when that’s what running for—and holding—office means? How many people want to give up that much time with their family, that much dignity, that much autonomy? If you’re a successful businessman or a local teacher, why would you want to give up a good life to do this? But from the perspective of the incumbent, that’s all for the better: the more that impressive challengers back off when they understand what’s involved, the fewer impressive challengers incumbents face.
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So for all that incumbents don’t like the system, they like the idea of reforming it even less. Dave Durenberger, a Republican senator from Minnesota between 1978 and 1995, told me about his experience trying to reform campaign finance. “Phil Gramm was our campaign-committee chair back then,” he remembers, “and he tore my picture down in the campaign-committee office. Connie Mack and Mitch McConnell came to me and said, ‘You’re going to kill us.’ ” That sort of reaction not only makes it hard for campaign-finance reform to pass; it makes it hard for a legislator to propose it.
I asked Bayh if he saw any hope on the horizon. His answer wasn’t what I’d categorize as hopeful, but it rang true: “There’ll be a major scandal at some point that’ll shock the public. It’ll be worse than what happened with [superlobbyist Jack] Abramoff. And at that point, the system will be changed.”
Here’s hoping, I guess.