Buying the nomination

Campaign money isn't simply a wherewithal, but an end in itself

Let me offer a Modest Proposal, as Jonathan Swift might call it.

We have long worried about the baneful effects of money in politics. In 1998, Meg Greenfield, the late editorial director of The Washington Post, described a "landscape teeming with demystified, anti-heroic, ethically compromised leaders."

While campaign-funding reform bangs its head against the padded walls of soft money, something else has happened. Campaign money has become not simply a wherewithal, but an end in itself, a way of keeping score.

For example, Lamar Alexander lays off four of his campaign staff - that taken to mean he is short of money, that interpreted to mean his candidacy is in trouble. Mr. Alexander, whistling a happy tune, says just wait for Iowa, and then the money will flow. But the scorekeepers are not impressed.

Sen. John McCain, on the other hand, because of his powerful committee positions, is showered with money from political action committees. "Lobbyists Boost McCain Campaign," headlines The Washington Post.

Gov. George W. Bush of Texas made a good impression this week in Iowa and New Hampshire. But, more important, Mr. Bush is way ahead in the Republican field in money-raising. He has about $15 million in hand and is looking for $50 million. Dan Quayle, lagging, is bitter about Bush's "big sucking machine." A spokesman for Elizabeth Dole mourns, "If money is what it takes to win the nomination, I don't see anyone passing Bush."

On the Democratic side, Bill Bradley is gaining on Vice President Al Gore and his $9 million. That stamps Mr. Bradley as "viable."

So, now my modest proposal. Since money, and especially early money, can buy you the nomination, why don't we accept that reality? That is to say, why don't we, on a specified day in March, count up how much front-loaded cash each candidate has collected and award the nomination to the top fund-raiser?

That would obviate primaries, and maybe even conventions, which the public is getting bored with anyhow.

I am open to suggestions about what to do with Steve Forbes, who collects little but has much.

If money is the mother's milk of politics, isn't it time to recognize political Mother's Day and forget about primary day?

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