Policy Today magazine cover showing neighbors talking
October 19, 2005

"The aim of every political constitution is, or ought to be, to obtain the rulers for men who possess most wisdom to discern, and most virtue to pursue the common good for society," wrote James Madison in Federalist No. 57. What would he say about today's big-money campaigns?

Eric Fingerhut is the kind of man who gives hope to many who have become cynical about politics. Well-educated, thoughtful and compassionate, he earned a reputation for decency and innovation in Ohio's Senate and House of Representatives through his efforts to help working people and the elderly and to promote civil rights, economic opportunity and education.

When he ran for a U.S. Senate seat in 2004, Fingerhut—who crossed the state on foot to better understand his fellow Ohioans' concerns—seemed an ideal candidate to promote civility in Washington and help deliver a swing state in the presidential election. Yet despite his affirmative campaign against republican George Voinovich, Fingerhut was easily defeated.

Why? One reason may be that although he received nearly two million votes, Fingerhut received no financial support from his own party. Says the Democratic National Committee's Press Secretary, Josh Earnest, "it had nothing to do with his prospects for victory. We did not make a direct contribution to Fingerhut's or any senate race, because we were focused on electing the president."

Even with the DNC's help, defeating Voinovich would have been tough. "Senator Fingerhut is a bright, hardworking member of the Senate," says one of Fingerhut's Ohio Senate colleagues, Majority Leader Randy Gardner. "But Senator Voinovich has consistently been one of Ohio's vote top getters—as Mayor of Cleveland, Governor, and Senator. He had better name recognition and was better funded." Unfortunately, for too many state and national candidates, funding disparities make all the difference. In an election in which Senate candidates raised $371,600,000 and spent $360,200,000—32% higher than in 2002—Fingerhut's disbursements totaled just $1,161,315. Voinovich, on the other hand, doled out $8,843,711.

Fingerhut himself says that "national and state sources focus on whether they think you can win or not, and they didn't think I had a high likelihood of victory. It's hard to raise money in any race, no matter how qualified you are, and it's especially hard if you're running against someone perceived to be unbeatable."

One Washington source put it more bluntly: "Fingerhut is dedicated, has experience, has been a state legislator and a member of Congress, yet even with Voinovich down in the polls and Ohio obviously a battleground state, the national Democratic party didn't lift a finger for him. They anoint who they're going to back, and for some reason, they had no real interest in him."

In American politics today, when money means everything, Fingerhut's experience is no surprise. What may be a revelation, however, is how far the election process has drifted from the plan set down by the nation's founders. Indeed, what James Madison most feared was the kind of situation that prevented Fingerhut from being competitive.

The founders' primary concern, notes Suzanna Sherry, Cal Turner Professor of Law and Leadership at Vanderbilt University, "was to avoid the dangerous effects of factions by having so many shifting groups that they'd prevent any single one from consolidating power. As Madison himself put it, 'ambition will counteract ambition.'"

The Constitution's framers thus emphasized the character of those seeking office. House members "were to represent their constituents," says Sherry, while Senators were "expected to be more thoughtful and deliberative" in overseeing broader national issues. These were "men of stature," adds Sherry, "chosen for their wisdom and judgment."

They were also, she notes, "men of means, patricians. They saw themselves as heirs to the Enlightenment, and they had the time and money to think deeply. They were not expected to raise a lot of money, because they were from the best families, so they had it." For most of America's history, explains Jack Rakove, Coe Professor of History and American Studies at Stanford University, "members of Congress didn't have to constantly worry about their political careers." The government, fashioned on the British model, had "huge financial resources through taxation," he says. "Money and politics is a modern phenomenon."

Regardless of their differences, the founders agreed that concentrated power threatened democracy, and it is unlikely they would recognize today's political process as an heir to what they established. "Madison would be appalled," says Sherry, "by the influence of big donors today."

While no one would dispute that money is now an integral part of politics, there is much disagreement over the exact role it should play. "The problem is not money, per se," says Celia Wexler, Vice President of Advocacy at Common Cause, "but where it comes from."

Corporations, industries, unions, and associations all have legislative interests, and through campaign contributions they can encourage legislators to shape policies that favor those interests. But such influence, especially in large doses, transforms the nature of democratic process—limiting the pool of competitive candidates and restricting how those in office will govern.

With few exceptions, success in politics now depends on having money—lots of it. Experience, connections, and location make a difference but matter far less than finances. "The reality is, without money you won't be taken seriously," says Tony Bullock, former chief of staff for New York Senator Daniel Moynihan. "To be a viable candidate for New York statewide office today you'll need $30,000,000. And we're seeing more and more billionaire—not millionaire, but billionaire—candidates, viable simply for the size of their checkbooks, regardless of experience or qualifications."

Former Goldman Sachs' partner Jon Corzine invested $65 million in his successful 2000 Senate bid and appears to be spending similar amounts this year to become New Jersey's governor. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg expended $75 million in the 2001 mayoral campaign and recently disclosed spending $46 million of his own money to get re-elected in November—far ahead of even 2001's pace.

Today, suggests Bullock, "you couldn't find a Moynihan—someone with a brilliant mind, White House experience, and no interest in raising money. The idea of someone like Moynihan running now is almost inconceivable." You want the best people elected, but the best people aren't necessarily the best fundraisers. A huge percentage of races are simply uncontested because of money."

The pressure to raise money only increases once candidates take office. "They're suddenly bombarded by people supporting them with money," says Bullock. And since their political futures depend on such revenue, freshly elected leaders cannot easily ignore their new donors' legislative priorities. Candidates who once challenged the system are soon beholden to special interests and must spend more time fundraising than governing. Denise Merrill, state representative from Connecticut, believes this devalues "the entire process of governing. Money has frozen the political process, so that even a group of good people can get nothing done."

The 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA), sponsored by Senators McCain and Feingold, targeted these problems by limiting campaign contributions. Yet as one Capitol Hill source notes, only such established, financially secure politicians could have forced discussion of campaign finance reform in the first place.

Although BCRA has withstood numerous legal challenges, groups inside and outside the government have retained their influence by circumventing the law's prohibition of large individual contributions. "The 'lifters' and the 'bundlers'—the hard money gatherers," says Bullock, "now have the greatest amount of power. The folks who can get you $250,000 in ones
or twos'—they're the ones who get their calls returned."

Yet while "it didn't solve all the problems," says Trevor Potter, President of the Campaign Legal Center and former Commissioner and Chairman of the Federal Election Commission, "BCRA was an important step in reigning in unlimited contributions." One Washington source notes that just "five years ago, over $500,000,000 was raised in soft money, and people were on the phone talking to the corporate chieftains and asking for hundreds of thousands of dollars at a time, and that didn't happen in the last election."

Recent indictments of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay for conspiracy and money laundering in a campaign finance scheme made politicians take notice. "The good news is that Congress is acknowledging that money is a corrupting influence," says a source on Capitol Hill. "What is happening with DeLay is an example of how the money chase corrupts.  People see that arguably the most powerful Republican in Washington was toppled by $190,000."

And more change appears likely. Albuquerque recently became the first city to approve "clean" (publicly financed) elections, and Connecticut will soon decide whether to join "clean" states like Arizona and Maine. The Supreme Court's recent decision to review Vermont's strict campaign spending limits indicates it might be willing to revisit its 1976 ruling in Buckley v. Valeo, which equated money with speech and thus protected unregulated campaign expenditures. Says Merrill, "until you can control expenditures as well as contributions, what goes out as well as what comes in, it will be difficult to effect real change."

The power to reform ultimately lies with the people, but they may need to be reminded. Common Cause says that explaining what soft money is and why it corrupts has been its toughest challenge. As BostonUniversity professor of U.S. history Julian Zelizer argues, "nothing will happen until the pressure means something to politicians. Voters embody a paradox: they hate big government but love their local representatives. They don't see the connection. Politicians aren't scared because even though there's a lot of talk, there's no bite, so they'll keep taking money."

How far has the country come from the founders' view of the electoral process? Would they agree that, in politics, spending money equals free expression? Says Sherry, "they wouldn't even understand the question."

About Geoff Pingree

Geoff Pingree, a professor at Oberlin College, is a writer, photographer and documentary filmmaker.