Thursday, March 11, 2004
The Texas Observer has an in-depth story here that highlights just how fat cats use campaign dollars to ensure that their favorite sons wind up in office.
Tommy Merrit was a moderate Republican from Texas. An apparent man of principle, he had voted with the interests of his district instead of following the directions of Tom Delay when it came to whether or not to try to rig Texas elections to ensure that more Republicans would win.
Americans for Job Security decided that they didn't like Tommy Merritt. The Observer describes it like this:
"The affable East Texas Republican was run over this year by one of the nation's most vicious campaign hit teams, a secret outfit whose reach spreads all over the American political system. It specializes in attempted assassination of political careers under the guise of issue education. Apparently, one sure way to escape the torrent of negative attacks it can bankroll is to avoid crossing George W. Bush and a select group of Texas Republicans."
Nobody knows exactly who American for Job Security is. They have reportedly spent $26 million dollars to influence elections. It's not clear if this comes from one person, or several. David Carney, a political "consultant" with ties to George Bush Senior and current Texas Governor Perry seems to have a lot to do with them.
The group filled the airwaves with radio ads attacking Merrit. They got the result they wanted. Merrit lost his next election to a more conservative Republican.
The ethics viewpoint of campaign finance reform would find nothing wrong with this picture. There is no evidence that AFJ or David Carney had any agreement with Merrit's opponent to give them any special favors if he won. But looking at it from an elections viewpoint, it is deeply disturbing that a few secret players can take someone they don't like out of office much like mafia hit men taking out storekeepers who won't pay protection money. They get to have their favored candidate in office and as the Observer notes they also sent "clear signal to Texas GOP moderates everywhere about just who was in charge." If the rest of us want to be in charge, we need to put an end to this sort of thing.
Anthony Corrado, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institute, has a twenty page paper here analyzing the impacts of the recently passed Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA) on the two major political parties.
George Washington warned us against over-reliance on political parties in his farewell address. These days, some experts seem to think it would be impossible to have democracy without them, forgetting that a great many Americans don't belong to any political party and seem to be doing just fine.
If a group of like-minded citizens want to get together and agree upon a platform of issues they agree upon, and then certify that some candidates support those issues by giving them an official name like "Republican" or "Democrat" that's helpful to democracy. These party labels can provide helpful, and low cost, information to voters on election day.
But modern parties hardly resemble this original idea. Instead, candidates hardly feel the need to embrace their parties platform, so its hard to know what anyone stands for anymore. Instead, parties have become just another vehicle for extremely wealthy interests to hand pick our elected officials.
BCRA aimed to restore some integrity to the parties by banning them from raising so-called soft money from corporations and labor unions. But at the same time, Corrado notes that BCRA radically increased the amount that parties can raise from fat cats -- up to $57,500 every two years. As a result, the political parties combined are now raising more money than they did during the last presidential election cycle before BCRA was in effect. So, BCRA may have shuffled the decks a bit, but it didn't necessarily benefit the rest of us much.
However, there is some good news in Corrado's report. Even though nothing prevented them from raising money from the rest of us before, it seems that both parties are now making a concerted effort to raise small contributions. Corrado doesn't define what he means by small, but it clearly looks like parties are doing better. The Republican National Committee reports that it has recruited 1 million new donors since President Bush took office. Many are no doubt oil executives and fat cats, but a good chunk must be regular folks too. The Democrats too seem to be getting the picture and has increased its total amount of direct mail donors from 400,000 to $1 million.
The sooner the parties start raising all of their funds from ordinary citizens, the sooner we'll have a political system that gives voters real choices on the issues they care about and doesn't screen out candidates and issues that scare wealthy interests but appeal to the rest of us.