Hard money, soft politics

If you're getting a little tired of hearing about quarterly losses, record bankruptcies, and Detroit automakers in tears, have we got good news for you! While everybody else in the economy has been, well, adjusting, cooling, even bottoming out, one growth industry has been booming until its contribution to the GNP is now fit to bust. We're speaking, of course, of politics - the golden business of running for office.

In California Gov. Jerry Brown is preparing to put $2.5 million toward campaigning for the Senate seat left vacant by S. I. Hayakawa. His Republican opponent, Pete Wilson, is counting on spending $6 million to keep the governor from it.

We are approaching, then, the norm of the $10-million election.

One mathamatically minded reporter has figured out that by spending an anticipated $800,000 to win reelection, Sen. John Melcher (D) of Montana will be laying out about $4 per vote if he achieves the same total as last time. It is a disquieting way to work out democracy's equations.

There is a sad irony to this luxurious spreading of money during hard times in order to woo voters who may not even have jobs.

And what, dare we ask, is the platform almost every candidate is running on these days? Fiscal responsibility, to be sure. These last-of-the-big-spenders who are not exactly cutting the fat out of their campaign budgets are promising the electorate they will slash to the bone every other budget in sight.

And where, you inquire (scratching your elbow through the hole in your sleeve), is all the money coming from? As if you didn't know the three-letter answer: PAC - the new political game which, some say, makes the video game with the same three letters seem like child's play.

In 1974 Political Action Committees raised $12.5 million to help finance the campaigns of congressional candidates who, from conviction or otherwise, supported their special interests. This year those PAC contributions will exceed of a little heavy capital, has remarked with a certain horror: ''Congress is awash in special-interest money.''

Those who defend the PAC as a proper democratic process argue that there are now about 3,000 committees, serving as a check and balance for one another. And, somehow, if you throw the used-car dealers, the funeral directors, the dairy farmers, and the National Rifle Association on Capitol Hill together, their intensely narrow views, it is assumed, will span out like points of the compass until a full and just perspective is rather wonderfully achieved.

The argument holds only if you believe that the public good of American citizens is the same thing as the private good of any group with a sufficient concentration of wealth.

Or as Sen. Robert Dole (R) of Kansas - scarcely a flaming radical - concluded: ''Poor people don't make campaign contributions. You might get a different result if there were a Poor-PAC.''

One of the least attractive aspects of the PAC system is that more and more contributions amount to ''hit'' money, devoted less to electing a worthy candidate than to defeating the candidate who, regardless of his other merits, does not vote ''your way'' on a single issue.

In self-defense, a candidate, it seems, cannot do without somebody's money. It takes so much money to get elected nowadays at the prime-time rates of TV political commercials, without which, we are assured, one can win no higher office than dogcatcher.

What effect will all this have on the caliber of men and women entering politics? One respected congressman, William Brodhead (D) of Michigan, has retired at age 40, citing as a considerable motive his fear that ''now votes are given in exchange for contributions.''

''The best Congress that money can buy.'' Even allowing for exaggeration, could any joke be more intolerable to elective officials and voters alike at a time when superior leaders are needed as seldom before?

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