What is the office of President of the United States worth? Although our highest-elected official earns a mere $200,000 annually in salary, candidates for this office spend tens of millions of dollars in their quest for power. In contrast, Abraham Lincoln spent a mere $100,000 on his 1860 presidential campaign.
The price to pursue the presidency has now risen more than 200 percent, according to Stan Huckaby, an accountant who prepares Federal Election Commission (FEC) reports for presidential candidates. He estimates that the presidential candidates for the 2000 election need to raise $22 million by the end of 1999. However, by July of 1999, Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush had already raised $36 million, almost doubling that amount -- and he's barely out of the starting gate. Democratic candidate Al Gore has raised $18.5 million so far, and, like Bush, his war chest only continues to grow.
It now appears that the race for President has become a race for dollars, rather than the pursuit of democracy. Whatever happened to the candidate of the people, by the people and for the people?
As early as the seventies, the rising cost of campaigns was a concern. As a result, campaign laws were amended and a "matching fund" program was adopted. The source of the matching funds, however, is money that is collected from you and me -- the taxpayers. These hard earned tax dollars are given to these candidates to supplement their campaign costs. The intent of this program was to clean up political campaigns by replacing special interest groups' contributions with public funds. This supposedly would level the playing field by assisting the often under-funded independent candidates. To garner these funds, each taxpayer has the option of donating $3 to the matching fund, simply by checking the box on his or her tax return.
In the beginning, matching funds seemed like a plausible solution to rising campaign costs and corruption in politics. However, as campaign costs continue to skyrocket, public funds are often misused. As a result, three-fourths of the American public report that they are against public financing of presidential campaigns. Whereas in 1976 some 27 percent of taxpayers agreed to contribute, in 1998 only 10 percent contributed. As a result, the lack of public funds is at an all-time low. This is especially alarming to presidential candidates who do not have millions and thus must rely on government money to sustain their campaigns.
Not all candidates, however, accept public funding. Steve Forbes, a multimillionaire, plans to bankroll his own campaign, refusing to accept matching funds from the government. But since he is not using any public funds, he is exempt from any spending limits. As a result, independently wealthy candidates such as Forbes, and possibly Bush (who has yet to announce whether he will accept matching funds) can continue, without restraint, to spend money stumping for votes. Meanwhile, publicly-funded candidates' campaigns stall when they reach their spending limit. This was the case with some 1996 presidential challengers.
The so-called spending cap on presidential candidates who opt for matching funds is, amazingly, "limited" to $33.5 million for the primary elections! In the 1996 presidential election, candidates spent $237 million, with 23 percent of the money coming from public funds.
How, in good conscience, can candidates go out and raise additional funds from the taxpayers and then accept so much of the taxpayers' money in matching funds? More importantly, why do we continue to allow it?
With the help of the candidates' own parties and political action committees, the campaign machines are fueled by astronomical amounts of "soft money." In the 1996 presidential election, more than $250 million in soft money was spent on "issue" advertisements and other non-direct campaign expenses. Much of this went to television commercials and other Wall Street-driven ads. And expenditures for the 2000 election are predicted to reach $1 billion, according to Senator John McCain. McCain is a presidential candidate and a proponent of campaign reform.
With the prohibitive high cost of modern-day stumping, many qualified candidates are forced out of the presidential race. Their loss, perhaps? More likely, it is ours.
For now, money buys access to the public, and money wins the race. As for the presidential election in 2000, it remains to be seen who will be the victor. With one presidential hopeful already raising more money than eleven of the other candidates combined, it seems inevitable that the main focus will be on money -- rather than real issues. Meanwhile, candidates will spend their days promising to fix the economy, healthcare and the deficit. Their nights, however, will be spent at $10,000 per plate dinners -- raising millions more for their coffers. Maybe it is time they put their money where their mouths are.