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Fixing Our Broken Politics: Mine’s bigger than yours, or how raising money trumps raising good arguments

By / 5.27.2011

In recent weeks Mitt Romney has been seeking to bolster his claim to be the mainstream establishment candidate capable of beating Barack Obama in the general election. It’s a logical enough claim for any candidate to seek to make, except that his most compelling argument has had more to do with dollars than ideas.

Last week, the Romney campaign arranged for more than 400 activists to travel to Las Vegas to participate in a telethon that the campaign claims raised $10.25 million in a single day. Two events in Boston later in the week were reported to have raised $2 million.

By June 30, the date on which donations from the last quarter will be published, the Romney campaign is hoping to be able to comprehensively demonstrate financial dominance over the rest of the field. Romney’s staff is keen to emphasize its fundraising prowess, not as a means to articulate Romney’s arguments about issues, but as an argument in and of itself.

Following the latest fundraising effort, the Romney campaign posted an article on their website claiming, “When it comes to money, President Obama and Mitt Romney occupy a plateau far above everyone else”. The message is clear: it doesn’t matter if you really like Tim Pawlenty or Ron Paul or any of the several other respected Republicans in the race: Mitt Romney is the only candidate with the cash to win.

Arguments about fundraising power and the supposed credibility that it gives a candidate are ubiquitous in primary campaigns. Newt Gingrich has already felt this bite: One of the key ideological moments in the GOP contest so far was perhaps Newt Gingrich’s apparent flip-flop over Paul Ryan’s budget plans for Medicare. The moment may well have made support for the budget a shibboleth for conservative voters, while the attention given to Gingrich’s misstep will make it harder for candidates to evade the issue.

Amidst the furor, however, one of the key arguments made by Gingrich’s detractors was that it had damaged his campaign’s ability to raise funds. Much was made of the fact that within 24 hours of his comments on ”Meet the Press”, 13 out of 18 co-chairs for Gingrich’s Florida fundraising effort dropped out. A ‘veteran Republican strategist’ was widely quoted as questioning whether Gingrich can “even make it to July 4th, because his fundraising is going to dry up.”

Primary elections are a vibrant part of American democracy. They contrast favorably with systems in most other democracies where the selection of candidates that the electorate chooses between is still largely controlled by party bosses.

Therefore, it’s tragic that the opportunity to have open discussions about ideas within America’s two great ideological traditions can be drowned out by questions about fundraising. This focus not only distracts from important issues, but also maintains the role for party elites that primary elections were intended to abolish.

Thirteen Florida co-chairs are supposedly able to hail the demise of Newt Gingrich’s campaign, while a small group of Romney fundraisers send a dramatic message to party activists and primary voters that, arguments over issues aside, his is the only campaign capable of defeating Obama’s formidable electoral machine.

There is currently legislation before Congress that would mitigate the oppressive effect that money in politics can have on the vibrancy of American democracy. The Presidential Funding Act would provide $4 for every $1 raised by candidates from small donations of $200 or less. Participating candidates must accept limits on the size of donations they are able to receive.

Such reforms would make candidates who inspire widespread support, but lack access to the tiny proportion of wealthy donors who contribute the majority of campaign finance funds, to be competitive. That would allow primary campaigns to be more about issues and less about money and organization. By negating “I can raise the most” as an argument it would enrich and broaden public discourse and keep our democracy lively and strong.

To find out more about the damaging role of money in politics please visit http://www.youstreet.org/ or go to Americans for Campaign Reform (ACR) on Facebook.

photo credit: las – initally