Let 1999 go down in electoral history as the year the "wealth primary"--a term coined by Jamin Raskin and John Bonifaz in law review articles to describe the period of early fundraising before the actual voting happens--ceased to be academic. The wealth primary (the corporate press is calling it the "money primary") is now as real as the one in New Hampshire and far more consequential in determining who will win the party's nomination and what issues can be raised.
In the first six months of this year, the presidential candidates took in about $103 million, three times the amount raised at the same point four years ago. George W. Bush, who has roped in just over a third of that total, has already announced that he'll forgo federal matching funds, allowing him to spend as much as he wants on the primaries. In response, the Democratic National Committee, fearful that its nominee will be vulnerable to a Bush advertising blitz next spring, has announced its intention to collect more than $200 million in soft money. On the Hill, the battle to control the House after 2000 is so intense that both parties' fundraising arms have created their own soft money vehicles, offering $100,000-plus contributors special access to top leaders. The House Republicans' recently passed tax bill is glutted with giveaways--$123 billion worth--to banking and securities firms, utility companies, oil and gas operators, the insurance and nuclear industries and other corporate contributors.
That's the bad news, same as it ever was. But this election just might be different. First, two major presidential contenders, John McCain and Bill Bradley, are trying to get in sync with public disgust about money in politics. And there is the long-shot threat that a third-party or independent candidate will ride a protest wave. After all, by a margin of nearly two to one, according to a Wall Street Journal/NBC poll, voters think the hyperfundraising epitomized by Bush is "excessive and a sign of what's wrong with politics today."
In their rhetoric at least, McCain and Bradley show they get it. The day Bush announced his $37 million haul, McCain denounced the campaign finance system as "an elaborate influence-peddling scheme in which both parties conspire to stay in office by selling the country to the highest bidder." A few days later Bradley gave a strong speech insisting that "democracy doesn't have to be a commodity that is bought and sold."
Although McCain and Bradley have distinguished themselves from front-runners Bush and Gore with these attacks, their proposals fall short. McCain's push to shut down soft money is an important first step. But voters want a complete overhaul of the system, not just incremental alterations. Nothing in the McCain-Feingold bill would slow the galloping cost of campaigns or break the dependence of public officials on wealthy private contributors, or end the debilitating money chase, or open campaigns to candidates who are unwilling to sell themselves to the tiny elite that provides most of the funding today. Or change the dynamics of the presidential wealth primary. After all, every cent of Bush's intimidating $37 million has come not in soft money but from individual hard-money contributions.
Bradley has gone further in calling for full public financing of Congressional general elections, with a two-to-one match of contributions up to $250 in the primaries for candidates who voluntarily limit their spending. This is a major advance in the debate, except for one fatal flaw: the absence of full public financing in primaries. Without that, candidates will still spend enormous amounts of time--as the presidential candidates are doing now--soliciting contributions from, and becoming indebted to, wealthy donors. Candidates will continue to raise their money in $1,000 chunks and get the match on the first $250. And access to money will still be the key determinant of who gets the party nomination. We'll still have a wealth primary and a system that looks a lot like our broken presidential one.
But the story doesn't have to end there. We now have plenty of proof that the public will support comprehensive clean money campaign reform, in which qualified candidates who agree to raise no private money and to abide by spending limits get full and equal public financing for their campaigns. Voters in three states--Maine, Massachusetts and Arizona--have adopted this model, and polls from New Hampshire to Mississippi to Colorado show that voters support it by majorities of from 60 to 74 percent. Republicans and self-described conservatives back it as strongly as Democrats and liberals.
Chances are, little is going to change in Washington anytime soon, but the momentum at the state level is real--and so is the desire for change at the grassroots. Ordinary Americans know that elections have become high-priced auctions they can't even dream of bidding in. They have yet to find a champion in this election.