Saturday, April 5, 2008
“If, on the other hand, we thought of the campaign as if we stockholders hiring someone to be our national CEO, Senator Clinton would win hands down.”
Just when I was beginning to enjoy being an adult, this campaign for President has made me feel like I’m back in high school. It was a place where people were elected to Student Council based almost exclusively on their popularity, with little regard for capability. There were no real issues, and the Council had no authority, so it didn’t matter. Running for President of the United States should be different.
Just because we call it a “popular vote” doesn’t necessarily suggest that we don’t care about the ability of the candidate to actually do something. I say that knowing full well that our current President was elected based entirely upon his popularity, having not the slightest idea what he was doing. So how’s that worked out for us?
Barack Obama is popular. Hillary Clinton is not. If this were high school, he’d be elected. If, on the other hand, we thought of the campaign as if we stockholders hiring someone to be our national CEO, Senator Clinton would win hands down.
Last month, the Obama campaign raised a whopping $40 million through hundreds of thousands of individual contributions averaging less than $100. (The Clinton campaign raised $20 million, which is impressive, but chump change by Obama standards.) Everybody feels very good about this because it suggests that a President elected without the need for special interest money will be free from its influence. He or she will still have to deal with those special interests to get anything done, but won’t literally owe them anything. In the world of compromise that is Washington, I’m not sure it makes any difference, but doing away with large contributions, personal or corporate, was the right thing to do.
Unfortunately, the effect of removing large contributions from the process has been to give a substantial advantage to the most popular candidate. Make no mistake about it. The fact that Barack Obama can outspend Hillary Clinton 2:1 in the remaining primaries will make a difference in the outcome of those elections. It’s a difference that has nothing to do with anything more than sheer exposure. Obama supporters may think they are part of a new age of politics, but they’re buying the election – probably of the wrong candidate – nonetheless. Electing a President shouldn’t be on a par with letting advertising convince you to use one brand of deodorant over another.
It’s too late for this election, but there are some things we can do over the next four years before we nominate and elect another President to make popularity for popularity’s sake less of a factor.
For one thing, we need a national primary, no more than 30 days prior to the nominating conventions. Popularity tends to dominate the early stages of any campaign. It’s natural, like dating. Superficial attributes are the first thing you notice. Getting to know someone takes time. People who voted, and delegates who were elected in the early primaries may have changed their minds by the time the last primaries and conventions are held months later.
Second, do away with caucuses. Caucuses discourage the participation of voters who prefer, and have every right to a secret ballot, who may not feel comfortable asserting themselves or being exposed to intimidation by more ardent advocates in a public, sometimes rowdy venue, and who simply may not be available during the relatively brief time during which the caucus is held. I’m sorry to demean the style of many fellow Americans – not that sorry, actually – but caucuses in this day and age are a joke, a poor, not stellar or classic interpretation of democratic process.
And we need to replace all personal or corporate contributions, large or small, direct or through political action committees, with public campaign funding. Based on some reasonable qualification process, give the serious candidates the money they need to run a campaign sufficient to acquaint the voting public with their programs, experience and personality – but let them allocate those funds as they see fit.
Let’s put the candidates on equal footing in so far as campaign financing is concerned, and leave it to them to win or lose the election based on more substantive issues. Whatever the source of their money, you don’t want someone buying an election by overwhelming his opponent with media exposure. As for the miracle of Internet campaign funding, people should be voting with their voices and at the polls, not with their wallets.
We want a popular vote, not a popularity contest. In politics, it is not true that you get what you pay for.