Joe Nocera for The New York Times: Buying the Election?

October 8th, 2012

The New York Times
October 8, 2012
By, Joe Nocera

 

 

Do you remember that moment in the first Austin Powers movie when Dr. Evil, back in action after being cryogenically frozen for 30 years, gets his hands on a nuclear warhead? “If you want it back,” he snarls to a group of world leaders who have gathered in a secret United Nations bunker, “you will have to pay me” — here he pauses for dramatic effect — “one million dollars!” The assembled leaders burst into laughter because it was such a pathetically small sum.

Campaign finance these days reminds me a lot of that scene. I lived for a few years in Washington, right around the time that Congress, aroused by the Watergate scandal, was reforming the country’s campaign finance laws. It instituted a system for presidential elections that combined small contributions from individuals ($1,000 or less), public financing from the taxpayers and a cap on how much the candidates could spend. In the Gerald Ford-Jimmy Carter year of 1976, the two candidates were allowed to spend — can we pause here for dramatic effect? — around $35 million each.

Fast forward 36 years, to last weekend’s news that the Obama campaign had raised $181 million in just one month, September. Not all that long ago, the ability to partake of public financing was a sign that you had arrived as a serious candidate; today no candidate in his right mind would want to be so constrained.

Four years ago, Obama became the first presidential candidate since campaign reform was instituted to opt out of public financing for the general election. He raised $750 million. John McCain, who accepted public financing, was only able to directly spend the $84 million or so he was allotted under the system. (Although the Republican Party raised millions more.) This election season, Mitt Romney and President Obama could end up spending more than $1 billion each. They seem to spend more time fund-raising than pressing the flesh with voters. According to Brendan Doherty, a political science professor at the United States Naval Academy, Obama has held six fund-raisers in a single day. Twice.

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