On Monday, Ted Cruz became 2016’s first official presidential candidate, but I prefer to think of him as the first politician to put an end to his awkward pre-campaign campaign: the months-long dance of doing all the things one does while running for president while refusing to acknowledge that one is, in fact, running for president.
Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Martin O’Malley, Rand Paul, and even Donald Trump, to name a few, are all running what look, sound, and smell like presidential campaigns. They hire campaign advisers, fund-raise, travel across the country (suspiciously, often to primary states!), give a slightly different version of the same speech to dozens of crowds, kiss babies, maybe even wage war with the opposing party’s likely nominee…but they won’t yet say I am running for president.
More than being an issue of waiting for the perfect moment to arise, or to hear back from whatever deity was consulted about the matter, it should come as no surprise that a non-candidate’s refusal to acknowledge the presidential campaign that he or she is most certainly running is all about money.
And tip-toeing around those five words can be very awkward.
Perhaps the best example of this came on February 27, when former Florida Governor Jeb Bush arrived at the Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Maryland. Bush appeared onstage to answer questions from Fox News host Sean Hannity, who began by asking, as Murrow might have, “Are you mad at your mom?”
In 2014, Barbara Bush made headlines when she expressed her distaste for political dynasties. “If we can't find more than two or three families to run for higher office, that’s silly. Because there are great governors and great eligible people to run,” she said. “There’s no question in my mind that Jeb is the best-qualified person to run for president, but I hope he won’t…. There are other families. I refuse to accept that this great country isn’t raising other wonderful people.”
Bush chuckled uncomfortably at Hannity’s question. His mother, he said, “had a change of heart, and that’s all right by me.”
But a few moments later, Bush found graceful avoidance more difficult to achieve: “If I go beyond the consideration of the possibility of running, which is the legal terminology that people here coming to CPAC are probably using to, uh, not trigger a campaign—if I get beyond that and I run for president, I have to show what’s in my heart.”
The consideration of the possibility…
I reached former commissioner and chairman of the Federal Election Commission, Trevor Potter, by phone on Monday. He explained that “the reason these people running for president are trying to avoid saying they’re candidates is that they have much looser regulatory schemes if they’re not candidates.”
“Put differently, they have access to a much broader array of money and they don’t have to disclose the sources of that if they are not candidates.”
And unfortunately for wannabe candidates, the FEC has a very Andy Warhol philosophy when it comes to identity. As far as the FEC is concerned, a candidate is anyone who calls himself or herself a candidate (and who raises or spends more than $5,000 to promote the candidacy).
“It’s kind of a chicken-and-egg situation,” Potter said. As in, what came first: the declaration of a candidacy, or the candidate-like behavior?
“There are rules for what money may be used to run for president: only individual contributions up to only $2,700 per person. Whereas people who are not running for president and merely going around the country giving speeches and meeting people can use almost any source of money, in any amount, with no disclosure. So that puts a premium on staying outside of the election system for as long as possible.”
It makes sense, of course, that those considering running might want to, as Rand Paul told me in January, “test the waters” by traveling the country before diving into a race, and maybe assembling a campaign apparatus in the shadows isn’t in itself such a bad thing—but it seems symptomatic of the broader, deeper problem of the influence of money, particularly “dark money” from superPACs, usurping the democratic process.
I asked Potter if the pre-campaign campaign system was basically “a huge scam,” to which he enthusiastically replied “Yes!”