Turning politics outside in

Money still corrupts politics but maybe not in the way we think.

Lucy Nicholson/Reuters/File
Donald Trump and Jeb Bush talk simultaneously during a Republican presidential debate in September 2015.

The unforeseen success of Donald Trump is the story of the 2016 presidential campaign so far. That Bernie Sanders is making a credible bid for the Democratic nomination might be the No. 2 surprise.

Or is their success just half of the story? The saga also includes the unexpected collapse of the campaign of Jeb Bush, whose immediate family includes two ex-presidents, and the struggles of Hillary Clinton, who has been part of the national political scene for decades, to shake off Senator Sanders and his appeal to young and disaffected people.

Mr. Bush and Mrs. Clinton have been among the most successful campaign fundraisers. Their large war chests were amassed to scare off potential rivals.

But with the demise of Bush’s campaign, questions are being raised about why his pot of gold didn’t translate into more votes. Did his campaign managers badly misspend many tens of millions of dollars? Or was he such a weak candidate, as well as a political insider out of step with the mood of voters in 2016, that no amount of money could make him electable?

Mr. Trump, a billionaire, seems to be taking special pleasure in pointing out that his campaign is self-funded and that, if elected, he’ll not be beholden to hidden special interests. If Americans are content to confine their choices for president to billionaires, he has made a good point.

Bush's failure -- he dropped out of the Republican primary race Feb. 20 -- shouldn’t be seen as an encouraging sign that money doesn’t drive American politics. For one thing presidential races are a breed of their own; they generate wide public and news media interest that doesn’t rely entirely on campaign advertising -- as Trump has skillfully shown with his ability to attract free publicity for his campaign.

While it’s troubling to think that voters cast ballots based on what they see and hear from a candidate’s paid political advertising, that’s not the greatest danger presented by money in politics.

“I never thought money was a problem because it corrupts the voters,” points out Harvard law professor and political activist Lawrence Lessig. “I thought money was a problem because of how fundraising corrupts candidates.”

Members of Congress spend 30 to 70 percent of their time fundraising, he says. “So whether or not money can buy you votes, raising money in a completely humiliating way, it turns you into a sycophant, or somebody who isn’t a leader.”

Long hours of fundraising also take away from time an officeholder could be spending working on behalf of constituents.

As Mr. Lessig puts it, the one thing that “unites Bernie and Donald Trump is that they are appealing to people who are so tired of the insider politician, and are willing to accept the warts of both candidates, if they could get somebody who would be credible about trying to change the system.”

In the aftermath of campaign 2016 that desire for change may extend to the way money is spent in political campaigning. Many members of both parties may be ready to rethink how campaigns are financed and look for a better way. Before dropping out Bush himself suggested that more transparency in revealing the identity of donors could be a start.

Campaign finance reform may be just one result of a year when political outsiders are turning politics inside out.

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