Just follow the money to find a winner in 2008

by Beacon Staff • October 14, 2007

The structure of American presidential campaigns is broken.,When you're running at the front of the pack in a bid for the American presidency, the bills rain down like water. Thousand-dollar-a-plate dinners are a nightly indulgence. The Benjamins are golden breadcrumbs scattered along the campaign trail.

The structure of American presidential campaigns is broken. With a broad field of candidates out spending like there's no tomorrow, the time has come to fix it.

The current presidential candidates released their third quarter fundraising totals in September, and Democratic front-runner Sen. Hillary Clinton holds a commanding lead over the rest of the field. She raised $27.9 million in the third quarter, while Sen. Barack Obama, her closest Democratic opponent, took in $21.3 million.

These totals dwarf the totals of the top two Republicans: former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney ($18.4 million) and former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani ($11.6 million). Other candidates, like Democrat Dennis Kucinich, with a measly $1 million raised during the quarter, have found their campaigns inhibited by this shortage of cash.

Realistically, this means Kucinich has little-to-no chance of overtaking Clinton and winning the presidency. But it does not mean that Kucinich is any less worthwhile as a candidate.

The meaning of these quarterly totals has been reversed. Clinton's lead should reflect her merit; instead, the money has become a stand-in for political worth. In that simplified system, lesser-funded candidates stand no chance.

Typically, funds come from lobbyist groups, political action committees and political parties, or sometimes straight from the candidates' own pockets.

In the 2004 election, despite widespread criticism and underwhelming approval ratings, President Bush was reelected partly because he had tens of millions of dollars more than challenger John Kerry. And he put that money to work.

The Iowa State Daily reported in 2004 that half of his advertising money was spent in Ohio, Florida and Pennsylvania, the three linchpin, battleground states. On election night, Bush nabbed two of these three and the presidency.

These money problems persist beyond presidential politics. Members of the House of Representatives, who serve two-year terms, find themselves in the midst of a perpetual campaign, trying to keep the lobbyists on their side.

Arizona has taken a first step in the right direction with its Clean Elections Act of 1998. Under this voluntary system, candidates for public office, including the governor, have used more public funding than private donations.

While candidates can opt to continue to use only private donations-from traditional sources like lobbyists and corporations-under heavy restrictions, the legislation makes the election process much more balanced.

Before they have access to public money, candidates must solicit five-dollar donations from 4,200 voters, which, most importantly, force candidate hopefuls to spend more time in direct contact with constituents. The voters become more directly involved in the campaigning process. And virtually any serious contender has a decent shot at running a successful campaign.

Janet Napolitano, Arizona's Democratic Governor, applauded the legislation, stating there was "No way some of those people could have raised enough to run without Clean Elections."

The McCain-Feingold Act of 2002, while not as progressive as Arizona's law, sought to balance campaign competition as well. The law addresses soft money donations, limits the parties' roles in financing and adjusts the regulations surrounding campaign ads. While a noble attempt at reform, the act failed to create a suitable public funding option for candidates.

More recent attempts to overhaul campaign finance have been rebuked. In 2005, a Democrat-backed "Clean Money, Clean Elections Act" was introduced in the House, only to be almost instantly squashed by the then-Republican majority.

The bill was the first of its kind to suggest a national clean election policy. Much like in the Arizona version, the legislation proposed that candidates would apply for public funding and face limitations if they did not. This seems to be the most logical alternative to the current set-up and should be seriously considered.

Clean elections open the field, disentangle candidates from the mess of lobbyist influence and help the public feel more secure in the election process. The nation should follow Arizona's example.,Douglas P. Case