Over the next two weeks, the voters of Iowa and New Hampshire will go to the polls and cast the first real ballots in Campaign 2000. Unfortunately, those same voters won't be able to vote for a candidate they can actually identify with.
That's because there is no candidate of the people. In this age of $70 million campaign war chests (the
amount George W. Bush has raised so far), almost every legitimate contender is indebted to the corporate executives and wealthy financiers who are financing this election. In Bush's case, almost 300 corporate CEOs have contributed to his election bid. Bill Bradley has taken money from almost 100 business heads.
The absence of a people's candidate is glaringly illustrated in a new book published by the Center for
Public Integrity. Charles Lewis, the Center's executive director, has said that "Each of the leading candidates has done public policy favors for their major contributors."
Many of Governor Bush's largest contributors are oil and gas companies. The book charges that Bush let them run roughshod over environmental protections in Texas. Democratic contender Bill Bradley is noted for the support he receives from Wall Street, a constituency that he nurtured during his time as a member of the Senate Finance Committee.
One of the more glaring individual examples occurred too late to be included in the Center's book. Last
week, it was revealed that Senator John McCain sent a letter demanding action on the pending television license application of one of his large donors, Paxson Communications. McCain's campaign has received over $20,000 in donations from Paxson executives and lobbyists.
The apparent conflict of interest in McCain's action is made even more notable since the Senator has based much of his run for the Republican presidential nomination on a call for campaign finance reform. He and Bradley have both promised to clean up the system if elected President. And the pair have vowed to refuse "soft money," funds political parties use to support their party's agenda, if nominated by their respective parties.
McCain, however, refuses to apologize for writing the letter. Instead, he points to the controversy as an
example of the "cloud of suspicion" that all politicians
labor under because of the broken campaign finance system. Even if a politician's motives are pure, argues McCain, he or she is assumed guilty whenever there
is even the appearance of impropriety.
The Senator is partly right. In Campaign 2000, only two candidates appear to be financing their own campaigns. That short list includes Republican Steve Forbes and Reform Party candidate Donald Trump. Forbes played off this reality in a recent debate, noting that there wasn't the slightest possibility that he would be improperly influenced as President since he was beholden to no one.
But the democratic process can't survive if it depends on eccentric millionaires running for President. Something has to be done to fix the system so that real people can run for office without being handicapped by their lack of connections to the chief executive officers of Fortune 500 companies.
McCain and Bradley say they want to cut off the influence of soft money. Although that's a step in the right direction, still more needs to be done.
Some experts have suggested deregulating the system entirely. This would allow individuals to donate more than the current $1000 maximum to campaigns. Allowing persons to donate more would get rid of the huge cost now required to find thousands of people who are willing to donate to a campaign - an up-front search cost that effectively precludes all but the best connected or wealthiest from considering a run for office.
Deregulation may be a legitimate solution. It at least gets rid of the unconstitutional implications of
the current system that risks violating the First Amendment by limiting individuals' political speech as
expressed through their donations.
None of these reforms, however, will be implemented before the current presidential race reaches the
finish line. A few years ago, it would have been impossible to imagine either Steve Forbes or Donald
Trump as possible candidates of the people. But that's where our democracy has found itself at the beginning of the 21st Century.