Friday, October 19, 2018

Trump, big money 'nationalize' political campaigns

This weeks’ political quiz.  One the following is true and one is false. 

(a) “All politics is local.”  

(b) Money is the lifeblood of politics.

The correct answer is (b).  It makes (a) false. 

The reverse was once true, with election campaigns conducted on a “retail” face-to-face basis on issues that were matters of state or local concern.  Now, many campaigns are national and rely heavily on outside funds and support.

This year, the U.S. House of Representatives is forecast to flip from Republican to Democratic and that there is even a slim chance that GOP could also lose control of the Senate.

The Democrats need to pick up at least 23 seats to gain House control, usually too great a challenge in any election.  Incumbents traditionally hold onto their seats.  This year, a great many House Republicans have chosen not to run, including House Speaker Paul Ryan.

What has clearly turned this year’s House elections into a national contest is President Trump.  With both houses of Congress in Republican control, he is able to pursue his policies virtually unchecked.  His popularity remains relatively low, and voters may favor giving Democrats control of the House to block him.

Aside from party loyalty, voters in House races are likely to be more influenced by their view of Trump than of their local candidate.  This may also be true in Senate races, but most seats there up for election this year are held by Democrats, making their challenge to Trump more difficult.

Once most financial support for candidates came from within his or her home state, and much of it came in small amounts.  A big change took place in 2010 when the Democrats persisted in treating House races as local while the GOP launched a national campaign based on opposition to the Affordable Care Act.

This year, a billionaire, who made his fortune running casinos, is contributing tens of millions of dollars to support Republican candidates across the country, almost entirely because of Trump’s decision to move the American Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.  Local issues don’t matter.

The political mantra seems to be, “All politics is money.”  We have reached the point where there is virtually no limit on big money contributions to elections.  Unless you read the fine print at the bottom of television campaign commercials, you miss the extent of out-of-state campaign funding. 

“SuperPACS” receive huge, unlimited sums, their sources kept secret.  They can spend freely, so long as they claim they are independent of the candidates they support.  Their outlays dwarf labor union contributions, despite their effort to make it seem they are merely striking a balance.

Let’s look at the campaign of a House incumbent from Maine to see the role of outside money.

One commercial for Second District candidate Bruce Poliquin, the incumbent, is funded by the NRCC, which states that it is not affiliated with his campaign.  But the NRCC is the National Republican Congressional Campaign, the party’s main organization for supporting House candidates.

The largest contributors to it are major finance and insurance companies plus the campaign funds raised by GOP House hopefuls for party leader who want members’ votes when the new Congress assembles in January. 

Poliquin’s campaign website notes: “He earned success helping manage pensions, including at Bath Iron Works.”  That understates his success.  He has been rated as the 17th wealthiest member of the 435 member House on the strength of what he made as an investment manager.

Among his largest contributors are financial firms like Citigroup and UBS.  They may not be seeking his support for their issues but simply ensuring that a like-minded congressman, with experience in the world of finance, remains in office.  Either way, this support has little to do with Maine.

Whether it is Poliquin or other candidates, voters can easily be left with the false impression that the candidates are locally supported.  The trail of the big money behind congressional campaigns reveals that many candidates are dependent on national interests beyond their claimed local focus.

Most of the money goes to buy television commercials and to send mailings in which candidates make their case or, more often, their opponents are attacked.  Backers know that voters are influenced by negative spots, short on solid information and often wildly inaccurate.

In 1976, the Supreme Court ruled that spending money is part of free speech, making it virtually impossible to limit campaign cash.  Now, in politics, big money talks loudly. 

Congress should seek ways to limit money in campaigns, forcing a new Court review, if necessary.

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