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In Politics, You Get What You Pay For
By Damon Circosta
Published: July 26, 2010
RALEIGH - As election 2010 heats up, political types are busy crunching numbers and attempting to divine who is ahead in the arms race for campaign cash.
For politicos, summer is the time to build a war chest. Campaigns need to buy their television spots in September, so a healthy campaign account by Labor Day means a leg up on the competition.
While most of us are taking a summer break, politicians and those who want to curry favor with them are at fund raising dinners and fancy house parties. It’s not just local pols out there looking for cash, either. Vice President Joe Biden was in the state last week for a shindig at the posh Carolina Inn. Of course, like nearly all of these fundraisers, it was closed to the public.
It’s not fair to blame candidates for the money chase. Public service can be rewarding, but not so rewarding that you would want to spend all your free time hitting up perfect strangers for cash.
Most people who aspire to public office get engaged because they wanted to fix something, say, local schools or the environment. Campaign fund raising is merely a means to that end. Ask anyone who serves in office and they will tell you that the least enjoyable part of the job is raising money.
You also can’t really blame the donors, either. Sure, some might be looking to develop a relationship with a politician who could help them down the line. But if you ask most people who give to campaigns, they feel they are doing it out of a sense of civic duty. Someone has to pay for electoral campaigns and it’s natural to want to help a candidate whose view you tend to agree with.
So if it’s not the fault of candidates or donors, who are we to blame for a campaign finance system that is almost universally decried as broken?
First among the culprits is an odd interpretation of the First Amendment. We all have a right to criticize our government and to speak freely. But through a series of U.S. Supreme Court decisions over the last several decades, we have come to view money as speech. Having more money should not entitle anyone to a larger voice in government, but that is what is happening right now.
The result is that government -- which should be of, by and for the people -- falls prey to the golden rule: “He who has the gold makes the rules.”
Another reason our campaign system is broken is we citizens have outsourced our democracy to those willing to pay for it. Let’s face it. Most of the campaign cash comes from people who want something from the government. And most of that money goes to pay for 30-second TV commercials. These commercials aren’t policy proposals or platform ideas. They are hit pieces designed to cajole us into voting by using fear tactics and half-truths.
Instead of delving into the nuances of public policy, it seems we treat campaigns like sports or entertainment, always looking to see who’s up or who got caught in the latest scandal. This is why those TV ads are so effective.
Solutions to this problem aren’t easy, but they are possible. We might not ever be able to completely divorce politics from money, but we can look deeper at the process and find ways to curb the influence of special interest cash.
We might have to spend some resources to do so, but with our government, like most things, you get what you pay for.