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Politics Is Expensive. But Must It Be Corrupt?

The issue is not how much money is spent on campaigns, but where the money comes from.

May 4, 2015

By the time the 2016 campaign grinds to a halt in just 18 short months, we probably will have a new page in Bartlett’s of quotations devoted to political chutzpah. The unifying theme for all these quotations will be candidates whose financial prowess puts Daddy Warbucks to shame decrying the oversized role that money plays in presidential politics.

Hillary Clinton, fortified by her recent burrito bowl at Chipotle, paused in her listening tour of Iowa to announce without prompting, “We need to fix our dysfunctional political system and get unaccountable money out of it once and for all — even if it takes a constitutional amendment.”

A laudable sentiment, even if Bill Clinton pioneered the use of unregulated “soft money” to help finance his 1996 reelection campaign. Then there is the central role that a Democratic Super PAC, Priorities USA, is poised to play in Hillary’s 2016 campaign. And don’t forget the Clintonian parsing of language: She is on record as only opposing “unaccountable money” so that presumably she has no problem with billionaires who disclose their political largesse.

Despite the dreams of true believers, a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United is about as likely as…well…a successful crusade to repeal the Second Amendment. All it takes is a two-thirds vote of a Republican-majority Congress and approval by 38 states. Putting that in perspective, such a constitutional amendment would require the approval of at least 9 of the 21 states that voted Republican in every presidential election in this century.  

Talking about a constitutional amendment is a practiced way of sounding sincere about campaign reform—without actually having to do anything. It is the equivalent of vowing to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour just as soon as leprechauns dance on the White House lawn.

When it comes to whoppers about campaign spending, it is hard to top the recent comments by Jeb Bush. “I don’t think you need to spend a billion dollars to be elected president of the United States in 2016,” Bush told reporters before he rushed to a Miami Beach fundraiser. “I don’t think it’s necessary if you run the right kind of campaign. You don’t need to have these massive amounts of money spent.”

The third Bush to seek the White House has figured out a novel way to be parsimonious—let his Super PAC (Right to Rise) do all the real work. Bush has apparently delayed launching his formal campaign in order to continue to legally fundraise for Right to Rise, which is rumored to have already raked in a staggering $100 million this year. In fact, there are hints that Right to Rise may end up as the deep-pocketed real campaign while Jeb Bush for President may serve as a Potemkin village version of running for president.

Bush sounds like a campaign reformer when he decries the high cost of running for president. But is $1 billion or even $2 billion really too much to spend on electing a president when Whole Foods grosses nearly $13 billion per year peddling organic kale?

The problem is not how much money is spent on politics but where the money comes from and how it is raised.

Imagine if every American voter gave $20 to the presidential candidate of his or her choice. That’s about the cost of date night at the movies if you skip the concession stand. Under this scenario, presidential candidates would have $2.5 billion to spend (more than the cost of the 2012 campaigns) without a whiff of corruption or quid pro quos.

Of course, American politics doesn’t work that way, especially in the Super PAC era. But the goal should be to keep candidates from catering to the policy whims of Super PAC patriarchs like Sheldon Adelson rather than trying to impose arbitrary limits on their total spending.  

This confusion has bedeviled campaign reformers from the beginning. The post-Watergate reforms—which cleaned up presidential politics for a quarter century—reflected a self-defeating Puritanism about money in politics.

The federal matching funds program for the primaries (which helped credible contenders augment their small contributions) required candidates to abide by rigid state-by-state spending limits. The result was silly gamesmanship as campaigns rented cars in Omaha for use in Iowa and booked motel rooms in Massachusetts after a long day of campaigning in New Hampshire.  This spending rigidity helped doom partial public financing for the primaries, which serious candidates abandoned after 2004.

America has always been a whatever-it-takes country when it comes to campaign spending. In 1757, George Washington bought voters a barrel of punch, 35 gallons of wine and 43 gallons of strong cider in order to win election to the Virginia House of Burgesses. (This drinking man’s strategy was soon banned by the state of Virginia).

Sure, some political spending is ludicrous, such as the $100 million that both candidates and Super PACs dumped on the 2014 North Carolina Senate race. But, at some point, even the most pigheaded Super PAC billionaires will presumably realize that in many situations the only thing they are buying are vacation homes for their political consultants.  

In other instances—such as in the 2016 Republican primaries—Super PAC spending will reward donors with access, good will and maybe altered policy positions. But the ultimate concern is the narrow slice of the economic elite who are funding the candidates rather than the total amount of money being squandered.

As George Washington illustrated, American politics will always be expensive. But the challenge in a post-Citizens United world is to find a way to prevent it from becoming expensively corrupt.

(Photo: Flickr/LightBrigade)

The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.

Walter Shapiro is an award-winning political columnist who has covered the last nine presidential campaigns. Along the way, he has worked for The Washington Post, Newsweek, Time, Esquire, USA Today and, most recently, Yahoo News. He is also a lecturer in political science at Yale UniversityHe can be reached by email at and followed on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.