April 2008 Issue
by James H. Ewert Jr.
The economy is suffering. An economic recession is taking hold. The government is handing out money with no strings attached and the stock market is acting like a bulimic teenager with a lesbian crush on Mary-Kate Olsen. Oil and gas prices are at record highs, the Iraq War is costing trillions of dollars and just about everyone is tightening their financial belts. These are indeed strange times in America. Things have gotten so weird that aside from defense and energy-related industries, nearly every major job sector is undergoing some kind of economic hardship — except, however, politics — and more specifically, the 2008 presidential campaigns.
At the end of February, contributions to the 2008 presidential candidates totaled just under $790 million, closing in on the total amount of money raised ($880.5 million) throughout the entire 2004 presidential campaign, which was not cheap by any means. That kind of money could provide a free ride for about 10,000 students to attend an average 4-year college or university. While that may not seem like that ominous of a figure, keep in mind that, only two months into the primary season, candidates have already raised almost $1 billion. With eight more months to go of relentless campaigning, senators Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and John McCain are sure to set records at a pace akin to Roger Clemens on the mound with a needle in his ass. The amazing thing is not that money is flowing into political campaigns, but that it is coming from an unusual source — the American people.
Illinois Sen. Barack Obama’s February fundraising totals make the film Brewster’s Millions seem like a political movie (please excuse the unintended racial pun, we all know how sensitive of a topic that has become in this campaign…) In the 1985 movie, Monty Brewster, played by Richard Pryor, is told that to win $300 million, he must first spend $30 million in 30 days. Much like the father who forces his son to smoke a carton of cigarettes when he catches Little Johnny taking a puff out back in the clubhouse, the intended end result is that Little Johnny will hate smoking cigarettes and Brewster will hate spending money.
Obama raised $55 million in the month of February alone, bringing his grand total to nearly $200 million. The stunning part was not that it was a monthly record for a primary candidate or that Obama spent an average of $1.5 million per day during the month, but that 90 percent of that money came from individual contributions of $100 or less. If that trend of small donors continues to hold like it has, the American public could (amazingly) once again see campaigns that pander toward populist positions rather than private and commercial interests.
Although it’s doubtful that Obama or Clinton (who spent an average of only a paltry $1 million per day in February) will grow to hate spending money like Brewster, questions about the public’s seemingly bottomless financial well drying up remain. It’s hard to believe that if the country’s economic troubles continue, the public will continue funneling money into the race like it has. Or is it?
The public’s contradictory financial support of candidates in the face of a recession isn’t the only thing turning this year’s election cycle into a drawn-out episode of “The Twilight Zone”. One of the glaring oddities among all the attention on political fundraising has been the Republicans’ lack of it, most notably Republican presidential nominee John McCain. Even after McCain essentially locked up the nomination on Feb. 5, he struggled to raise $11 million in February; less than a fifth of what Obama raised in the month. Going into March the former Vietnam prisoner of war had about $4 million cash on hand, minus a loan he had to pay back.
Republicans have enjoyed a sizeable economic advantage over Democrats for the better part of recent history, but this year Democrats have leveled the playing field and appear far more motivated and organized — and it shows. Though special interest money doesn’t tend to enter the race until the final months, one obvious hole for Republicans could be the telecom industry, a major contributor to the Republican National Committee. Many telephone utility companies are reportedly withholding financial support for the RNC until President Bush arranges immunity for them stemming from their help in the Administration’s domestic spying program. (It’s going to be interesting to watch what the telecom industry decides to do if it ends up being thrown under the bus by the Bush Administration.)
With or without the telecom industry’s support, Republicans are also losing to Democrats in funding from the health, finance, real estate and insurance industries, all typical Republican strongholds. Lawyer and lobbyists, for example, have given Democrats more than $53 million so far versus $40.6 million for the Republicans.
One lobbyist/fundraiser who has been making waves in this election cycle is Tony Rezko, the developer and former Obama fundraiser currently facing corruption charges for soliciting kickbacks from companies seeking business with the State of Illinois. Obama has addressed the controversy and donated the money raised by Rezko to charity. The case, which is chocked full of messy details and complicated because elected officials are involved, exemplifies the convoluted relationship between candidates and lobbyists — an especially hot topic. Yet lost in the Obama-Rezko hoopla were New York Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton’s ties to another indicted fundraiser, Norman Hsu, a clothing-industry entrepreneur who is facing charges in New York for violating campaign finance laws. Clinton has donated more than $800,000 in contributions linked to Hsu.
In politics, the passion and enthusiasm of a small group of people usually more than makes up for the lack of it within the large majority that doesn’t give a shit. Usually that maxim is strikingly true in presidential politics, where big business and special interests typically hold candidates’ financial leashes. But the 2008 presidential race is (amazingly) threatening to actually change the way in which elections are fought and won.
This year’s campaigns might do to presidential politics what cocaine does to the human body, or what Bush’s stimulus plan hopes to do to the floundering economy — pump it full of so much money, speed and intensity that the heart explodes and the market eats itself. Just how cocaine inevitably overloads the nervous system and the insatiable economy will inconspicuously swallow and absorb the tax rebate money it’s being fed, presidential campaigns might reach their financial saturation point.
Which would mean that people might actually matter again when it comes to politics and presidential campaigns. Which would be, I’m not sure how else to put it, amazing.
CI Political File #006