In the old days, Labor Day was the kickoff to the fall campaign — that is, the fall of the election. I'll never forget the Labor Day kickoff in 1984, when it rained on the picnic in Wisconsin, and the sound equipment didn't work in California, and when someone in the crowd collapsed. I had the awful sense that the campaign was doomed. It was.
We are over a year away from the fall campaign, and Labor Day will hardly be its kickoff. The first caucus is still months away, but the truth is that the first primary has been going on for months. It's the money primary, and unless you're a fan of Bernie Sanders, non-millionaires need not apply. Or non-billionaires.
It all makes sense in a perverted sort of way. The Supreme Court has struck down the overall limit on contributions to political parties, which means the 591 people who maxed out in 2012 won't have to worry about what would have been a $123,200 limit for this cycle.
Who gives $123,200 to a political candidate?
People with views that are as strong as their wallets are thick. Yes. As much as the ideologues get attacked for trying to dominate politics, I don't really worry so much about them. Both sides have their ideological stalwarts.
Like most people who have worked in politics, I used to have a love/hate relationship with the rich people we depended on. On the one hand, when you're running a campaign, you desperately want support from the people who can write a six-figure check, because it allows you to get your message across and win points with the press as a serious candidate. On the other hand, it always bugged me that we had to spend so much time pretending that what some rich developer thinks about the tax laws should inform a candidate's environmental policies.
That's the sore spot.
I don't mind if people who care about global warming want to spend millions to stop it. I don't mind if Emily's List, the pro-woman candidates' PAC, spends big; and if the anti-woman lobby wants to have their own PAC, that's only fair.
It's the developer I'm worried about. You see, most people who give money in politics aren't acting out of ideological fervor but out of practical business sense. What they give is worth it given what they get. If you're a government contractor who stands to make millions in contracts, a donation — often to both sides — ensures that your calls will be answered and your concerns will get a hearing (even if it is from a cynical staff member like I used to be). I remember attending Mike Dukakis' first million-dollar fundraiser, a big deal in those days. I looked around the room and said to a friend: "Do all these people really believe he'll be elected president?"
"Of course not," was the answer. The room was packed with Massachusetts developers, who thought that when the campaign was over the governor would still be the governor, which was why they were there.
Now Mike Dukakis was about the most ethical politician I've ever met, which some have said is one reason he's still a professor and not a former president. He wouldn't accept unlimited contributions, even though we'd found a very good loophole, much to my chagrin at the time.
It is certainly true that whatever the law is, smart lawyers will always be looking for loopholes. Short of a constitutional revolution, we will not get the money out of politics. But you simply can't raise a billion dollars without selling your soul, or at least mortgaging it, and most of us know that — whether we support public financing or not. That is one of the reasons that this Labor Day most of us will be trying to think about anything other than politics, which is a far worse sign of the times than rain, or even a broken sound system.
(Susan Estrich is a professor of Law and Political Science at the University of Southern California Law Center. A best-selling author, lawyer and politician, as well as a teacher, she first gained national prominence as national campaign manager for Dukakis for President in 1988.)
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