Mannes in Politico on the Billion Dollar Presidency

Today Politico‘s Arena asked “Is a $1 billion election too expensive?”  I answered:

When asked “How’s your wife?” the great comedian Henny Youngman replied, “Compared to what?”

The same question could be asked about these fundraising totals.  Certainly they are higher than past totals, but combined they represent less than $8 per US citizen – and that’s over four years.  So annually, spending on Presidential elections totals less than a gallon of gas per person.  How is that too much to spend in informing the American people about the critical choice of who should hold the nation’s highest office.

It is true that money goes along with access, which can turn into influence.  There are innumerable special interests that game the system, but most interests have counter-interests that are also well-funded.  Are there political distortions resulting from influence linked to election funding – almost certainly. But there is no political system that guarantees optimal outcomes.

Whatever changes might be made to the campaign finance system, it’s architects and enthusiasts should beware of unintended consequences.

It turns out many of the other Arena contributors made the same point – although more than a few took the opposite position.  However, none of the quoted Henny Youngman – who I revere.

I actually worked at Common Cause many moons ago.  The primary issue at the time, the Internet was just beginning its path to ubiquity.  We pushed for full, timely, online disclosure of campaign donations – a cause with which I am eminently comfortable.  But I also began to wonder why we make our politicians spend so much time raising money.  I began to wonder if the problem was that there was not enough money in politics.  It should be easier for candidates to raise money.

Public funding might reduce the problem, but it is in matching money, so politicians would still need to spend lots of time fundraising.  And if they were good at it, they might forgo the matching money and its spending limits.  Or, it could allow well-entrenched incumbents to easily raise the money they need and scare off challengers.

One possible reason for the increase in expenditures is the decline of the parties, which were more reliable vote machines.  But of course this was in the era of big-city bosses and political machines – hardly an inspiring example.

I won’t say I’m unconcerned about distortions caused by influential groups – from trial lawyers to prison guards to teachers (and many, many others.)  But ultimately the best way to beat an organization is to organize and our system gives enormous opportunities to do so.

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