Our elections have become a huge industry. Obviously, the more money — and it’s now in the billions of dollars — needed to fund the system, the more important money will become in winning. This means that politicians will always be asking for money.
As Kurt Vonnegut said, “In this world you get what you pay for.” The supplicant is asking for influence. It’s as American as apple pie. If people give big money to the Clinton Foundation, for example, they may be giving it to advance the superb work of the foundation or they may be making an investment in a Secretary of State or a future president. When he was State Treasurer in California, “Big Daddy” Jesse Unruh used to say, “Money is the mother’s milk of politics.”
So here comes Labor Day, which is when people begin to pay attention to politics. The politicians know this and they spend a certain amount of time every day on the telephone hawking for money. If you have no family money or corporate connections, you have to work the phones a little harder. I know guys whose Assembly seats have been bought and paid for by in-laws. That comes with a price. One guy I know got caught fooling around with an attractive lobbyist. When the wife found out, and they always do, she gave the wandering-eyed husband a tough choice: “Quit the Legislature or don’t come home.” He quit. I’ve always believed he was better off. On the other hand, there are ways around buying elections. Just look at Bernie Sanders. A lot of people sent his campaign $27 and he was so competitive with Hillary Clinton that he almost pulled off a huge upset.
The issue of money is made more complicated by a couple of Supreme Court decisions. The first, “Citizens United,” basically allowed corporations to get away with political murder. They can now be treated as people and give massive amounts of money to candidates. Obviously, this ploy from the then Republican Supreme Court was designed to help Republican candidates and it certainly did.
The second decision was really tricky. It involved the case of former Governor Bob McDonnell of Virginia who, along with his wife, was accused and convicted of all kinds of bad, greedy stuff. However, maybe because even jurists sometimes think, “There but for the grace of God go I,” they decided that there had to be an absolute and specific quid pro quo, as in “If you give me this, I will do something for you.” The smart politicians know all about how to be vague and therefore how to avoid conviction. U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, who convicted Speaker Sheldon Silver and former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos on pay to play charges, now has to see if they will get off because of the McDonnell decision. Put another way, in throwing out McDonnell’s conviction, the Supreme Court ended up having legitimized a very ugly way of doing politics.
The politicians have also discovered the Internet. I don’t know about you but every day I get multitudes of entreaties from all kinds of politicians asking me for money and saying things like, “This is a disaster unless you help me!” This is a natural development since the days when so-called “robot machines” would send out letters with prominent signatures on them. My mother used to swear that she was getting personal letters from the president and his wife. She got quite annoyed when her smart Alec political scientist son tried to dissuade her. I stopped doing that.
So politics is a meat market and until we come up with a better way, including public financing of campaigns and limiting how much money our legislators are allowed to make on the “outside,” it will continue to be bad news.