The Evil of Access | The Nation


The Evil of Access

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Candidates start to feel like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, trapped in a daily, stultifying repetition they can't escape. As a mayoral candidate I made 30,000 phone calls (that is not a misprint) over two years to lists of potential donors and spoke at 205 of my own fundraising events. It's hard to overstate the physical and psychological stamina required in such an effort, and how little time and energy it leaves for all else.

About the Author

Mark Green
Mark Green is the former Public Advocate for New York City and author/editor of a couple dozen books, including Who...

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We all know the damage done by corporate money in politics. On January 19, we have the opportunity to do something about it.

Following the values of progressive patriotism, here's an ambitious agenda for the forty-fourth president's first--and second--terms.

§ The "Money Primary" Weeds Out Good Candidates. Potential candidates know they have to succeed in not one but two elections: The first, in which contributors "vote" with their dollars, comes long before constituents have their say. And if you don't win round one financially, you might as well not bother with round two; after all, because incumbency attracts money and money entrenches incumbency, no challenger spending under $850,000 won a House seat in 2000. With odds like those, many talented women and men flinch.

§ The "Pay to Play" System Especially Hurts Democratic Candidates and Values. Most Republicans oppose new regulations and taxes out of authentic belief. So they regard the special-interest funding of public elections as a brilliant system: For them, principles and payments go hand in hand. Robert Reich, a former Labor Secretary and recent Massachusetts gubernatorial candidate, believes his party is losing its identity as the champion of the average family "because Democrats became dependent on the rich to finance their campaigns. It is difficult to represent the little fellow when the big fellow pays the tab."

Ever wonder why polls show that so many Americans strongly favor higher minimum wages, prescription drug benefits for Medicare, quality daycare, publicly financed Congressional campaigns and stronger environmental protection, even at the cost of higher taxes--yet the political system can't produce any of these? The pay-to-play system is a circuit breaker between popular will and public policy.

Put yourself in an honest Democrat's shoes: What do you do when a big-business donor privately asks you, "So where do you stand on X?" X being something that hugely helps or hurts his economic interests? You realize not only that your answer could immediately affect a large contribution but that the cost of paying for X will fall on taxpayers who are not listening on the phone.

Or suppose you're in government. Once, as the New York City consumer affairs commissioner, I was considering filing a legal action that could cost a Democratic businessman I knew well millions of dollars. I successfully sued, and he did lose millions, and he wouldn't speak to me for a decade. But this outcome did cross my mind as I weighed my decision to prosecute--given the current political money process, how could it not?

§ Wealth Buys Office. As more and more multimillionaires run and win--the percentage of them in the Senate has risen to more than one-third, about the same proportion as it was before senators began being elected by popular vote in 1913--more and more experience-rich candidates are grilled by party leaders about how they can possibly run against experience-poor but wealthy candidates. And when a very wealthy candidate inundates TV, radio and mailboxes with ads portraying him as a young Abe Lincoln and you as the Manchurian Candidate, the pressure to hustle special-interest money becomes even more intense.

Also, as campaign reformer Ellen Miller describes it, "the problem [with] more and more wealthy people running and winning is that then tax policy, healthcare policy and education policy are seen through the lenses of multimillionaires, people who don't need government services. They are a different class of people and from a different world than most Americans, who sit around the kitchen table calculating their finances."

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