Monday, July 2, 2007

Money Matters

The second quarter reports are now mostly in: Barack Obama raised about $32.5 million between April and June, and has gotten contributions from more than 250,000 contributors since entering the race. He added more than 154,000 donors between April and June alone! Hillary Clinton didn’t even come close: she raised just $21 million for the primaries and about $27 million overall. This is the second quarter in which Obama bested Clinton, and his lead is growing. Meanwhile, poor John Edwards reached his goal of $9 million from some 100,000 contributors. This sum, which would have seemed astronomical eight years ago, especially so early in the electoral cycle, has caused media pundits to wonder now if Edwards should any longer be considered in the “top tier.” After all, he did not do that much better than Bill Richardson, who raised $7 million. Christopher Dodd raised $3.25 million. The others, including Dennis Kucinich, did worse; in some cases, much worse.

For the pundits, the contest now is essentially about money. They are probably right, though it isn’t entirely clear why. One would think that the kind of indirect vote buying our most undemocratic system encourages is bound to encounter diminishing marginal returns beyond a certain point, and that Edwards and probably Richardson and even Dodd have exceeded that point. After all, there are only so many ways to spend campaign money constructively. But this remains to be seen. In any case, there plainly is more than a grain of truth in the conventional wisdom: because the more money, the more ads and, other things equal, the more ads, the more votes. This speaks volumes about our political culture. What is even more troubling is the self-fulfilling prophecy aspect of the conventional view. In our “democracy,” corporate media play a major role in delineating the political landscape – legitimating some candidates and positions, marginalizing others. If they say money talks, then it does – whether or not it would without their saying it.

As we enter the summer duldrums, it’s likely that the situation – with Clinton still the “front runner” (not in money, but in likely voters) and with Obama rapidly closing in -- will remain fixed for a while. Of course, developments within the campaigns or events outside their control could still change the situation. But, for those who follow the money, the situation seems more like a two-way race than it formerly did. For reasons explained in almost every preceding posting, Hillary Clinton is bad news. It would therefore be all to the good if Obama blew her out of the water. But how much better is he? It’s hard to say. So far, he has played the coming election like Gary Hart in 1984 (and, until he undid himself with some “Monkey Business,” in 1988) -- all talk and no program. He’s not a Clinton, but, like almost all Democrats, he could nevertheless be a Clintonite. [On the concept of “Clintonism,” see “Combat Clintonism!” April 27.] In that department, both Edwards and Dodd seem better; Kucinich and Gravel seem much better. The corporate media treat the latter two as comic relief. That’s why, sad to say, they are non-starters; so too probably is Dodd. Edwards may still have a chance; let’s hope so. Lets hope too that the other candidates, Joe Biden and Bill Richardson – Clintonites to the core, and right-wing ones at that -- remain where they now are; i.e. nowhere.

Media pundits could actually do some good if, instead of obsessing about the money race, they’d at least discuss measures that would make money less important, and ideas and policies more important. The vast majority of Democrats and Republicans have always been eager to sell themselves to at least some extent. But campaign reform is not impossible even so. It has become more difficult, however, thanks to our vaunted judiciary. At least since Buckley v.Valeo in 1976, a philosophically confused and increasingly ideologically driven Supreme Court has been an obstacle in the way of democratic reform, applying a warped conception of free speech, according to which buying “access” to politicians is a form of free expression, to impede public deliberation and to enhance the power of economic elites. As recent rulings about the feckless McCain-Feingold electoral finance reforms make clear, the problem is now worse than ever with Bush appointees John Roberts and Samuel Alito on the Supreme Court. But there is still much that could be done – for example, Congress could require that publicly licensed media outlets give ample free time to all significant candidates; it could raise the amount of money available through public financing; and it could require embarrassing disclosure statements and the like for candidates who opt out of public financing. The Pelosiites are clearly not up to the task. [On the concept of pelosiism, see “Pelosiism: the Highest Stage of Clintonism,” May 28.] As with so much else, the initiative will have to come from “below,” from us.

For now, though, with state primaries bunched together just after the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, and with so many anti-Bush voters still, as in 2004, strategizing like pundit wannabes -- all the while taking cues from the corporate media’s framing of the contest -- exposure and therefore money just might be decisive. It is becoming clear that “debates” that are anything but debates will not clear the air; certainly none of the three already held have come close. In the last one, the June 28 “forum” at Howard University, it was all but impossible to discern an iota of difference, at the level of policies and programs, between most of the candidates. Were it not for Kucinich and Gravel, there’d not even be much point in watching – except in the hope that someone named Hillary would make a gaffe. Too bad she is so clever. If the decisive issue ultimately is money -- as it need not be, should not be, but could well be -- it may also be too bad that Obama is so clever too.

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