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Those With the Gold Rule in Political Races

By Ellen S. Miller. Ellen S. Miller is the executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington. / June 16, 1995



THE Senate vote to preserve the public-financing system for presidential elections was indeed a victory for anyone concerned about the undemocratic influence of private money in public elections. But if we read subsequent editorial opinions in the Washington Post and the New York Times, we are led to believe that the presidential financing system is nearly ideal. It sounds as if presidential candidates no longer need to raise large sums from interested contributors and that they are no longer in debt to powerful special interest groups.

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The truth about the presidential system is that it still operates within the "golden rule" paradigm of politics: "Those who have the gold, rule." We can no longer ignore the fact that the presidential system is seriously flawed.

The 1996 presidential race illustrates all the weaknesses. There is an appalling emphasis on raising enormous sums of money in order to be considered a viable candidate. Texas Sen. Phil "I love raising money" Gramm (R) set this year's challenge at $20 million. Now all the candidates, the media, and ultimately the voters are using candidates' fund-raising ability as the standard of the candidates' political earnestness. Wisconsin Gov. Tommy G. Thompson (R) estimates that to be a real contender, he needs close to $10 million for a late-starting run. Former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander (R) sums it all up by saying, "The 1995 primary is the fund-raiser."

Then there is the pandering to wealthy interests. Mr. Alexander, who seems to be the most candid about what is going on, notes that the best move he has made in his presidential campaign has been to get to know the fat-cat financiers of the Republican Party. Alexander once complained that in order to compete, he would have to spend all his time with people who can give $500 or $1,000, which he said "isn't a good way to prepare yourself for [being] president."

We know from past campaigns that contributions from businesses dominate and that the contributors reflect a choice selection from the Fortune 500. President Bush's campaign was propelled by investments from the Wall Street crowd. President Clinton's, too, was bankrolled by big business Wall Street titans like Goldman Sachs and Shearson Lehman Brothers.

The money that fuels these races does not come from ordinary Americans deciding to put $10 or $25 behind their favorite candidate. In the 1992 presidential elections, for example, contributions of $200 or greater accounted for 86 percent of the $27 million raised by Mr. Bush and 62 percent of Mr. Clinton's $25 million. One estimate is that 95 percent of this money came from less than 1 percent of the population.

And finally there is what Senator Gramm calls the "money filter": The de-facto requirement of needing $20 million to be considered a viable candidate has screened out many prominent contenders. Dick Cheney, Dan Quayle, and Jack Kemp all said their presidential ambitions had been curtailed by the money factor.

Sadly, the old American notion that "anyone can grow up to be president" has become a farce. Today, anyone who wants to be president has to first win the "wealth primary." It may not be an official part of the process, but it's the decisive one.

So there is a certain irony in the fact that Sen. Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky is essentially right when he says that the presidential public-financing system has not reduced the influence of vested interests on campaigns. Those who get the gold, rule.

We should not be misled by anyone into thinking that the way we finance our presidential elections should be a model for reforms for other elections. It only makes the public less willing to provide public dollars to the winner of the private money chase. It would be far more useful to build the case for a new system of democratically financed elections.