I believe in the division of labor. You send us to Congress; we pass laws under which you make money…and out of your profits, you further contribute to our campaign funds to send us back again to pass more laws to enable you to make more money. –Senator Boies Penrose (R-Pa.), 1896

George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Laura Bush have been darting across the country these past few weeks raising money for Bush-Cheney ’04 Inc. Bush, who broke all precedent in his 2000 bid by opting out of the presidential public-financing system and the spending limits it imposes, is once again pushing the envelope–and the corporate execs, lobbyists and wealthy individuals he has enriched are sending envelopes back, stuffed with checks. His operatives say he hopes to raise $170 million for next year’s primaries–an obscene amount, since he will have no Republican challenger and his Democratic opponents will be held to a $45 million spending ceiling. But they’re deliberately lowballing his total. Given the $101 million he raised in 1999-2000 and the unwise doubling (by the reform-hungry McCain-Feingold-Shays-Meehan squad) of the individual donation limit to $2,000, Bush starts with a potential funding base of $200 million or more.

Nothing like this has happened since the robber barons and the trusts united behind William McKinley’s 1896 campaign. Back then, Senator Mark Hanna, chairman of the Republican National Committee, invented the first truly national campaign fundraising machine, setting precise assessments for contributions from banks and other businesses that feared Democrat William Jennings Bryan’s populism. Hanna, who famously quipped, “There are two things that are important in politics. The first is money and I can’t remember what the second one is,” raised $6 million to $7 million for McKinley, which in today’s dollars would be about $150 million. By comparison, the reform group Public Campaign points out that Bush’s $200 million will be more than all the private money raised by the Republican presidential nominees since Watergate, adjusted for inflation. It’s not for nothing that Karl Rove describes Mark Hanna as his political hero.

So what? says the corporate right. As the President’s spokesman, Ari Fleischer, said, “I think the amount of money that candidates raise in our democracy is a reflection of the amount of support they have around the country.” The issue, however, isn’t just how much money a candidate raises but where it comes from and how it skews the candidate pool and the political debate. Bush’s money machine–as we went to press he was on track to garner more in a few weeks than all nine Democratic candidates raised in the first three months of the year–is a measure of his popularity only among people who can afford to write $1,000 or $2,000 checks. That group is less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the population, and far wealthier, whiter, older and more likely to be male than the general population. America’s financial elite is well represented in this “donor class,” and its interests in tax breaks and regulatory rollbacks are given disproportionate attention because of its contributions.

There are two solutions to this problem. The first is to expose Bush’s special-interest fundraising, as groups like the Reform Voter Project have already begun to do–for example, with an ad linking the millions Bush has received from air polluters with the rise in asthma attacks among children. The connections between his policies and his special-interest contributors could be Bush’s Achilles heel. The second is to insist that the Democratic presidential candidates talk about how they would fix the ailing presidential public financing system. Arizona’s and Maine’s clean elections systems offer hopeful models in which more than half the current elected officials, including Arizona’s governor, received full public funding in exchange for abiding by strict spending limits and raising no private funds. Under these systems, once a candidate qualifies by collecting a large number of small contributions there is no more debilitating money chase and no more wooing of the wealthiest. Instead, candidates get to spend their time talking to average voters and addressing their concerns. Cynics and pessimists might say that such reforms will never spread (though versions have been recently passed in North Carolina and New Mexico). They would do well to recall the Progressive Era of the early twentieth century, which was spurred by the excesses of the Penroses and Hannas, and take heart for the battles ahead.