Friday, February 27, 2009

The Main Obstacle

Cowardice and “bipartisanship” are obstacles in the way of the “change” many Obama voters, the ones not just voting against McCain, thought they voted for. But the main obstacle is something else: it’s the way we finance electoral campaigns. If only we could reduce private contributions to insignificant amounts and rely on public funding instead, real change can follow.

Ever since the Supreme Court ruled in Buckley v. Valeo (1976) that only minimal, easily circumvented, restrictions on campaign contributions are permissible, the quasi-official view has been that no matter how much money talks, restricting campaign contributions restricts free expression in violation of the First Amendment. This is not the place to address the few merits and many shortcomings of this way of thinking. The Supremes were wrong, but untangling and then addressing the questions involved is complicated. However there is nothing complicated about the observation that the system now in place impoverishes political debate. It leads to the marginalization of positions that are, in many cases and by almost any standard, sounder than those that it legitimates, and it even makes it possible to ignore plain facts.

Notwithstanding how the “mavericks” McCain and Palin made an issue of “earmarks” and “pork” in the 2008 presidential race, a theme Obama seems to have adopted, the problem has less to do with what monied interests purchase when they “pay to play” than with what they are able to remove from political debate altogether. Three timely examples will explain what I have in mind:

-first, the virtual exclusion from discussions of the Iran Question of the indisputable though seldom acknowledged fact that Israel has many more nuclear weapons than the Mullahs could ever dream of. In view of Israel’s proven eagerness to go to war, its insistence that Iran poses an “existential threat,” and the likelihood that the next Israeli government, led by Benjamin Netanyahu, will be even more bellicose than the current one, this stubborn fact is plainly relevant to assessing Iran’s position on developing nuclear weapons and to reflecting on what an appropriate “response” to Iranian ambitions might be. Nevertheless, the combined weight of the Israel lobby and the various “defense” lobbies has effectively removed this very relevant fact from public discourse.

-or consider health care. Plainly, it would be better to get private insurers out of the system altogether; all they do, after all, is skim off huge amounts of money while generating inefficiencies in the process. But they’ve bought their way into the system to such an extent that “single payer” – government run -- health insurance remains off the agenda now as much as it was a generation ago when Hillary Clinton botched up efforts to secure universal coverage. That we’d be better off without private insurers involved in the health care delivery system is, at once, perfectly obvious and utterly beyond the pale. We have our system of private campaign financing to thank for that unfortunate result.

-then there is the financial crisis; the need, acknowledged by almost everyone, to get credit flowing again. Could anything be more obvious than that insolvent financial institutions, big and small, should be nationalized; that their managements should be replaced and that their stockholders, not taxpayers, should take the hit? If nothing else, it’s a matter of simple fairness. The “financiers” made off like bandits by gaming the system. Now that the sky has fallen, they should be the ones it falls on hardest. But it also makes economic sense because there is no quicker and surer way to make loans available again, and because so long as credit is frozen, the efficacy of the Obama stimulus package is diminished. So far, though, the Obama administration seems interested only in saving the bankers (i.e. the gamblers) and their banks – by indemnifying them for their losses with yet more taxpayer money. In time, it may become clear, even to the Wall Street operatives Obama appointed for his economic team, that saving bankers is not the way to save the banking system. But given how “generous” Wall Street has been to both Democrats and Republicans, it is far from clear what the effect on policy of this realization will be.

Needless to say, full public financing would not make everything better automatically. It would not alter the stifling structural constraints that a capitalist economic system imposes. All liberal democracies, including those with saner, more democratic electoral systems, confront these obstacles. But, so long as we are doomed to operate within that framework, full public financing would remove the main obstacle in the way of what Obama voters were hoping his election would bring.

Ironically, public financing is perhaps the one feasible, major reform around which “bipartisan” support should be forthcoming. Republicans may be second to none in baseness and servility, but even they must hate groveling before their corporate paymasters. In this instance, inertia, not ideology, is the problem – that and, of course, the Supreme Court.

But where there’s a will, there’s a way. The problem is that there isn’t much will. Electoral reform is one of those issues that comes up at election time and is then forgotten as more pressing concerns arise. It is happening again. But if it is permitted to happen, “change we can believe in” will never get beyond the “aspirational” stage.

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