Wednesday, February 08, 2012

The presidential megaphone

The New York Times, in an editorial railing against the impact of SuperPACs and campaign spending, unintentionally makes a very good point:
Up to now, Republicans have been the main defenders of this corrupt system, and the main beneficiaries of it. Two of Karl Rove’s political groups raised $51 million last year to use against Mr. Obama and other Democrats, and the Republican presidential candidates’ PACs have raised $40 million.
Priorities USA Action and other Democratic groups have raised only $19 million. And, as Mr. Messina wrote on the Obama campaign’s blog, “with so much at stake” Democrats decided that they would not “unilaterally disarm.”
But if President Obama had refused to join in this downward spiral — and if he had proudly campaigned on that refusal — he and his campaign might have made up for that deficit in other ways: with more small contributions, and more support, from a public disgusted by the outsize influence of big money.

A president has a megaphone bigger even than Mr. Rove’s bloated bank account, and Mr. Obama could have impressed many wavering voters if he had chosen to use it against campaign corruption.
This is exactly right -- the president of the United States as the incumbent officeholder is granted a very large megaphone, beginning the campaign with a pronounced advantage over his political opponent(s). The president's access to media and ability to get his message out is almost, if not literally, unparalleled (and this doesn't even take into account the incumbent's ability to dole out political favors). Any challenger invariably begins with a much lower public profile.

More notable, The New York Times editorial board appears to believe that even if the eventual Republican challenger has access to tens of millions of dollars more than President Obama ("Rove's bloated bank account") that Obama still retains the advantage. Given that the editorial board doesn't exactly discount the ability of money to influence election outcomes, that's a stunning admission.

That campaign spending still pales next to the advantages of incumbency shouldn't be a surprise to anyone -- it helps explain why limits on campaign fundraising are popular among so many incumbent politicians. Recall that McCain-Feingold passed the House by a 51 vote margin and the Senate by 20 votes; does anyone really believe that a majority of the US Congress was willing to imperil their election prospects all for the sake of a purer democracy?

If the field is already tilted in the incumbent's favor, and limits can be placed on the opponent's ability to fundraise and thus get their message out (campaign spending, after all, is not used for bribing voters but rather acts of free speech such as TV ads, billboards, yard signs, etc.), then it's an obvious huge advantage for the incumbent. This is the context in which restrictions on campaign funding/spending must be understood.

Taking a bigger picture view, the Citizens United ruling has hardly marked the end of American democracy. Indeed, since the Supreme Court decision two years ago we have seen the following:
  • Massive turnover in Congress in the 2010 elections.
  • The abysmal performance of self-funded candidates in that election cycle.
  • A Republican nomination race that shows few signs of ending anytime soon.
The idea that money guarantees electoral success, meanwhile, took another beating last night with Mitt Romney's poor performance in three GOP primary/caucuses despite his superior financial strength. My father told me this morning that at his local precinct in Colorado that Rick Santorum defeated Romney by a 42-16 margin despite the fact that Romney both had a recent campaign stop in the area and significantly more advertising.

Our democracy may face threats, but the ability of candidates to spend increasing amounts of money on free speech isn't one of them.

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