Monday, February 19, 2007

On the Primacy of Fundraising

Senator Evan Bayh (D-IN), last December, after only two weeks, dropped out of the race for the Democratic nomination for President (Rumor has it that one main factor was Obama getting ready to enter the race, attracting so much attention and money).

In an interview with NPR's All Things Considered on February 12, 2007, Bayh spoke very frankly about how much time he had to spend on fundraising. A "non-celebrity candidate" (probably referring to "rock star politicians" Clinton and Obama), he said, without exaggerating, has to spend 80-90% of his/her time raising money.

He went on to describe a typical day: After getting up, his fundraising breakfast is followed by fundraising calls; then there is a fundraising lunch followed by - you guessed right! - more fundraising calls; and then, there is a fundraising dinner and/or reception, followed by yet more fundraising calls to the West coast, depending on where in the country he is.

All this of course is nothing new; but to hear someone who experienced this himself talk about it in such a calm and matter-of-fact way, is still sobering.

It is also well known that any candidate who wants to have a chance in 08, has to raise at least $100 million in 2007 alone. The year having 52 weeks, this translates to roughly two million dollars per week, almost $300,000 per day (assuming, realistically, a seven-day fundraising week), and about $30,000 per hour (assuming, admittedly, a rather short 10-hour fundraising day)! Welcome to contemporary US politics!

While small donations, especially raised online, are increasingly important, the bulk of the money still comes from relative few major donors and donor networks. What most donors are most interested in is whether their candidate can win, which is largely determined by how well he/she does in the polls, which in turn is largely determined by how much money they have to buy airtime to gain name recognition, get their message across, and build an appealing public persona. So there clearly is a circular relationship between fundraising capability and probability of success. Everything else, especially their platform, becomes a function of this absolute priority of having to raise $30,000 per hour.

Since 1976, it has always been the candidate who had raised the most money, who eventually was nominated by his party to run. This means that it's not the people who decide who is running, but a handful of donors. This will be the case all the more this time around because with several big states moving up their primaries, this will be the longest and costliest campaign in history. By this time next year, we will know who is running.

This also means that this pattern is all the more likely to hold in 2007. As of now, by most estimates, Hillary Clinton, together with her husband, and their whole infrastructure, will be able to raise the most. My big concern, like that of many, is that she will be nominated as the Democratic candidate, and then might not win - truly a worst-case scenario.

What does all this mean for progressive grand strategy? It can only mean one thing: It's the money, stupid! The logic is impeccable: You want to win; in order to win, you have to raise the most money; in order to raise the most money, you have to get the biggest donors on your side; in order to get the biggest donors on your side, you have to promise them the kinds of policies that they prefer seeing enacted once you win; etc., etc.

How can progressives even begin to break this vicious cycle, which systemically deforms the US political system?

Already 66 years ago, the liberal Supreme Court Chief Justice, Louis Brandeis, had a sobering answer:
"We can have democracy in this country or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we cannot have both." (Labor Journal, October 17, 1941, p. 18)
Unfortunately, this is precisely what has been happening in this country in the last 30 years, and especially since 2001: A greater and greater concentration of wealth in the hands of a few, who use this wealth to literally buy political power and influence. Money is power, and money talks louder than civil society; at least for now.

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