When stock-car racer Dale Earnhardt climbs into his Chevrolet Monte Carlo, he wears his corporate sponsors on his sleeves. Sprinter Michael Johnson and basketball star Cheryl Swoopes both won their Olympic events in specially designed Nike shoes, complete with the company's characteristic "swoosh" logo. Bob Dole and Bill Clinton, however, prefer plain blue business suits.
Here is a modest proposal. Starting now, all candidates for president and Congress should wear the corporate logos of their campaign contributors on their power suits. They also should lend their names and likenesses to their commercial sponsors for use on T-shirts, hats, balloons, billboards, and television ads. Press releases should start referring to candidates as belonging to contributors, as in "BankAmerica's (insert candidate name here) spoke at the Jaycees meeting today."
These simple actions would serve the public good in numerous ways:
*Good for disclosure. Wouldn't Bob Dole's now-famous statement that cigarettes might not be addictive have been enhanced had the words "RJR Nabisco" and "US Tobacco" been emblazoned on his lapel? People might also have been able to feel President Clinton's pain more acutely last year when he struggled to decide whether to veto securities reform legislation, if the names of the trial lawyers' firms that opposed it and Wall Street companies that supported it were embroidered on his tie.
*Good for the economy. Campaign contributors would get free advertising every time a candidate spoke on television or appeared at an event.
That, in turn, would increase sales, which would create jobs, which would add to the tax base and reduce the deficit. Candidates, meanwhile, would get more exposure than they ever dreamed possible, thanks to their sponsors' multimillion-dollar advertising budgets. Right now only one-third of Americans can name their representatives in Congress. Imagine how many people would remember their senators' names if they starred in a Coca-Cola campaign!
*Good for citizenship. Social critics have long bemoaned the dearth of talented young people who choose public service as a career. But what if General Mills printed photos of members of Congress it supports financially on Wheaties boxes instead of (or at least, in addition to) athletes? Olympic swimmer Amy Van Dyken recently commented that appearing on a Wheaties box meant a lot to her because, as a kid, such photos inspired her for her Olympic quest. If campaign contributors started popularizing politicians now, perhaps we would see more young people opting to serve their country in public office.
This modest proposal would cost taxpayers nothing. Nor would it interfere with the traditional relationship that campaign contributors have enjoyed with politicians - access when it counts on important policy debates. The only complication is purely logistical. There may not be enough space on candidates' persons to display the names of all of their campaign contributors. But this problem is not insoluble.
Perhaps candidates could wear letters A through E on Monday, F through M on Tuesday, and so on, until they've cycled through the whole alphabet. By the time they get back to A, there probably would be new names to add.
*Nancy Watzman is a project director for the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization in Washington.