Friendship brings such blessings. And such bargains. Only because of our closeness was President Barack Obama willing to drop his asking price and offer me a picture and a moment with him on the cheap. At least that’s what my invitation to a fundraiser last Thursday night said.
I don’t mean the Thursday night fundraiser: that vaunted din-din at Sarah Jessica Parker’s crib in Greenwich Village, where 50 glitterati paid 40 grand each. (I’ll multiply: That’s a $2 million haul.) I mean a second, follow-up fundraiser, headlined by Mariah Carey at the Plaza, to which the president and first lady quickly zipped, double-dipping in Manhattan’s lucrative waters to maximize their catch.
The Plaza event was for a “small group of friends,” said the invitation, which came to me by mistake. (Like most journalists, I don’t give political donations.) The invitation also said that in light of those friendships, the “contribution amount has been kept low.” How low? I had to open up an attachment to find out: a mere $10,000 for one person, $15,000 for a couple. Pocket change. Since 250 “friends” reportedly ended up in this “small group,” that’s another $2 million haul, give or take.
Four years ago, Obama opted out of public financing for the general election, which would have given him $84 million for the September-to-November phase of the race but prevented additional fundraising. He raised many times that — his total, stretching back to the start of his primary campaign, was about $750 million — and hugely outspent John McCain, who took public financing.
Two years later the Supreme Court, in the disastrous Citizens United ruling, cleared the way for unlimited donations to — and expenditures by — super PACs that could promote a given candidate so long as they didn’t coordinate with him or her. Republican bigwigs got to furious work, determined to put Obama at the financial disadvantage this time around.
And here we are, in an age of austerity surreally contradicted by the hundreds of millions being poured into campaigns. By some estimates Election 2012 will be a $2 billion affair, the majority of that probably amassed and put into play on the Republican side.
There are indeed two Americas and two economies: one in which a conservative titan like Sheldon Adelson and his relatives blithely funnel $21 million toward the lost cause of Newt Gingrich, and another in which the median net worth of an American family has dropped to $77,300, which is roughly where it was in the early 1990s.
Campaign spending skyrockets while government spending is under siege. Political ad makers get rich while infrastructure crumbles. And presidential candidates have been turned into platinum-level panhandlers. When they could and should be mulling the metastasizing challenges of a country on the ropes, they’re begging: to crowds of more than 1,000 and klatches of just a few dozen; over breakfasts and lunches and dinners; in multiple states on single days. Obama traveled to Maryland and Pennsylvania on Tuesday and pulled off six fundraisers in as many hours.
Today’s office seekers present vague promises but a detailed pricing chart. For X amount you get a speech; for more, a photo; for even more, all of that plus banter over canapes. Politicians are like airlines. You can fly them economy, business or first class.
Or you can try to buy one of your own. Isn’t that essentially what the Koch brothers and Adelson are doing? As Nicholas Confessore reported in The New York Times last week, Charles and David Koch lead a group of conservative donors who have pledged to raise some $400 million during this campaign cycle for issue groups, including their super PAC, while Adelson and his family have thus far given at least $35 million to super PACs that support Republicans. Of that, $10 million recently went to Restore Our Future, which backs Romney. Adelson has said that he might spend $100 million when all is said and done.
“That is a great deal of money,” noted McCain, a longtime proponent of tighter regulations on money in politics, in an interview Thursday on “PBS NewsHour.” “And, again, we need a level playing field.”
What we have, instead, is a gaudy free-for-all, so loopy and unctuous as to defy belief.
We have Scott Walker, the Wisconsin governor, yukking it up on the phone with a blogger who successfully passed himself off as David Koch and said, “I’ll fly you out to Cali and really show you a good time.”
“Outstanding,” Walker responded.
We have Romney ignoring Donald Trump’s attention-mongering tantrums about Obama’s birthplace in return for fundraising help, including a 63rd birthday lunch for Ann Romney on the 66th floor of Trump Tower in Manhattan. That was in April. The cynosure of the equestrienne-themed cake was an edible Ann on an edible horse. The tally was reportedly $600,000.
We have both the Romney and Obama campaigns soliciting donations by promising to enter donors in lotteries for dinner with the candidate and one (or more) of his celebrity boosters, and we have email subject lines from the Obama campaign like these: “Clooney,” “George Clooney. Really” and “Throw Bo a bone.”
Bo as in the First Dog. The money hunt enlists all creatures great and small.
We have early, primary-season assessments of candidates that hinge largely on what sort of fundraising chops they seem to have. It’s a bizarre qualification for governing, but a transcendent one, and that’s been true for a few nutty decades now. George W. Bush in 2000, Howard Dean in 2004, Rick Perry this time around: All generated excitement because all generated money. Before the Iowa caucuses or the New Hampshire primary comes the first fundraising report. It’s nearly as relevant a verdict.
We have difficulty taking anything at face value. Did Cory Booker, the Newark mayor, denounce the Obama campaign’s attacks on Bain Capital because he was really all that nettled by the negativity, or was he pacifying Wall Street, whose largess, which he enjoys, can be essential to a New Jersey politician? It’s impossible not to wonder.
We have a financial arms race, which leads to a barrage of negative attack ads, which turn an already incendiary partisanship positively sulfurous.
Last week, as the fundraising frenzy came into more ghastly relief, there were calls for a constitutional amendment to dismantle super PACs and for the Supreme Court to revisit Citizens United.
There was also a speech by Mitch McConnell, the leader of the Republican minority in the Senate, who likened the Obama campaign’s complaints about conservative megadonors to President Nixon’s so-called enemies list. McConnell praised Citizens United as a victory for free speech.
Hearing the word “free” in this context was the most surreal wrinkle of all, because right now we’re shackled to a system that demeans the people running for office, corrodes voters’ trust in them and doesn’t do any honor to this democracy of ours.
Frank Bruni is a columnist for The New York Times.MORE IN Commentary
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