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Money in Politics

There is a narrative that has long existed in the media and the world outside of the halls of government that goes like this:

‘Money pollutes politics. It makes elected officials do thing they otherwise would not ever do. Therefore, we should legislate all money out of our campaigns nationwide’.

The only problem with this narrative is that is just isn’t true.

Money does not change any elected officials mind or political philosophy. Money follows political philosophy. Not the other way around.

If massive gobs of money were the sole determinant of elective politics, we would now have a ‘President Hillary Clinton’ in her first term in the White House. She, and maybe 6 other Republican primary candidates all out-spent Donald Trump at various stages of the campaign and yet he defeated them all.

Why didn’t money win out there?

Why don’t history books record the presidency of ‘President’ John Connally? John Connally was the Governor of Texas who was wounded in the JFK assassination in Dallas on November 22, 1963 but recovered to serve out his term and then converted to the Republican Party only to spend $11 million in the 1980 Republican primary for president but garnered only a single delegate to the GOP Convention that year, Ada Mills of Clarksville, Arkansas.

Otherwise known as ‘The $11 Million Delegate’ to many political folks.

She is a testament to the futility of trying to hang what is going on in politics solely on the evils of ‘money in the system!’

At least 75% of all the money spent on the 2016 Presidential campaign was spent on ‘losing’ candidates. 16 Republican candidates spent millions of dollars on their campaign in addition to multi-millions spent on their behalf in the form of ‘dark’ money in the form of 527s and 501(c)4 organizations and such only to lose to Donald Trump in his first political campaign ever.

Bernie Sanders set records for the amount of money he raised on-line but still lost the Democratic primary to Hillary Clinton.

Same goes for all of the billionaires and millionaires and corporations who placed their bets on everyone else but Donald Trump in 2015-16. They wound up ‘losing’ that money because their candidate and their side did not win.

How can that happen if ‘money is the root of all evils in politics’?

Take it from someone who has worked on the inside of 1 US Senate campaign and 5 congressional campaigns, including my own in 1984: No one will contribute to a candidate’s campaign unless they already agree with 85% of that candidate’s position on the issues and overall political philosophy to the role of government in everyone’s lives.

Neither will PACs, 527s or 501(c)4s. They won’t support the candidacy of many challengers since 95% of all incumbents usually win their re-election bids unless they are caught in a massive scandal or there is a tsunami wave of anti-incumbency in the voting electorate as we saw in 2010 when Republicans capitalized on the energy of the Tea Party movement and took back control of Congress and the US Senate from 2 years of solid Democratic control after the Obama wave election of 2008.

In over 12 years serving as chief of staff on Capitol Hill to former US Senator Elizabeth Dole and former Congressman Alex McMillan of Charlotte (NC-9), I can safely say that we only had 1 occasion when a lobbyist came in to ask for a vote that was contrary to the elected official’s stated public position on the matter based on the contribution history of the company the lobbyist represented.

‘You know we can’t vote that way!’ I told the lobbyist. ‘I know’ he said. ‘But I had to ask anyway. It is my job, you know’.

For the vast majority of politicians serving in high elected office, the fact that such-and-such a company contributed $2000 to their $3 million campaign is absolute peanuts when it comes to possibly changing their vote based solely on a financial contribution.

95% of that money is coming from people who just want to see that elected official stay in office because they agree with their overall general philosophy of government.

Not because they think they can change that elected official’s vote because of a campaign contribution.

Biblical/Theological Reasons Behind This Position

Whenever believers start to think about their role in our modern American Democratic Republic, they should keep the following facts in mind:

  1. We are not a theocracy.
  2. We have a civil government run by imperfect fallen creatures.
  3. We are not yet living in the City of God but rather the City of Man.

It would be nice to believe that all men and women are virtuous, Christ-centered individuals who follow Scripture on a daily basis religiously. In such a world, we would not need any expensive political campaigns because everyone would tell the truth about themselves and their opponents and there would be no need to refute any vicious political attacks with expensive campaign commercials.

However, James Madison recognized the dilemma when he wrote Federalist 51 and said:

'If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary’

We are not all angels and therefore, we do need government.

Once our Founders recognized the need for government, they also worked to insure basic freedoms we take for granted today: freedom of expression; freedom of assembly, freedom of the press, freedom to file grievance and the freedom to worship as the individual sees fit, not as the state demands.

That same freedom everyone is guaranteed under the Constitution leads to conflict from time to time when it comes to politics as we try to come to some common understanding of how we should self-govern ourselves.

The same freedom of speech applies to the political world as it does in the non-public world.

From the very beginning of the American Republic, some form of ‘campaign finance’ has been used to help people of one party or the other get elected which has been long recognized as part and parcel of that ‘freedom of speech’ we all hold dear.

When he 'stood' for election again for the House of Burgesses in 1758, George Washington did what almost every successful politician back then did to win: he paid for enough booze to get everyone inebriated on election day it seems.

There were 397 votes cast. George Washington got 309 votes.

Here's the bill his supporters sent to him:

  • 34 gallons of wine
  • 3 pints of brandy
  • 13 gallons of beer
  • 8 quarts of hard cider
  • 40 gallons of rum punch

Total bill: 34 pounds, Virginia currency.

That is over 1 quart of alcohol for every vote cast for the 'George Washington for House of Burgesses!' campaign, July 24, 1758

His only recorded comment: 'My only fear is that you spent with too sparing of a hand' meaning he was afraid that maybe they had not provided enough booze and alcohol to the crowd.

Using campaign dollars to buy political ads and conduct a Twitter campaign on-line is much preferable to plying the electorate with alcohol on election day most people would have to agree.

The other component to campaign finance is that it really does get at the heart of freedom of expression, opinion and political sentiment. A person can have well-grounded and sound beliefs about how we should live our collective life together as Americans but unless he or she has a way to convey those great ideas and sentiments to a majority of voters in their state or district, how will we ever know if what they are saying makes any sense or not?

That is where campaign finance comes in. Candidates have to raise enough money to be able to pay for the newsletters, tv ads, social media campaigns and door-to-door literature drops that allow even the most virtuous Christian to get their message out to the voters who actually have the power to agree with them and put them in office so they can put their great ideas to work in the public square for all of us, or not.

Otherwise, the political positions of even the most virtuous Christian political candidate would fall on deaf ears like a tree that falls in a forest without anyone around to see or hear it fall.

The desire for truth therefore almost demands the means by which to advance it. ‘Truth’ in the political world can be an elusive commodity when professional spin-meisters and media consultants and pollsters are experts at taking a minute slice of fact or a statement and turning it into a political club to beat an opponent into submission and defeat at the polls in November.

Any political candidate needs money to be able to advance their position and project it beyond their immediate circle of friends and supporters as they try to get elected so they can put these ideas and policies into practice. Campaign finance is a ‘positive’ force if you agree with your preferred candidate’s position; it is a ‘negative’ force if you disagree with them.

What is At-Stake For Christians If We Put Severe Restrictions on Campaign Finance?

The amount of spending on campaigns in America has grown exponentially over the years. On the face of it, it appears to be grossly wasteful and just plain ‘gross’ in the aggregate.

The entire bill for the 2016 elections in America cost $6.4 billion. The presidential campaigns of Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump and the other 19 candidates who went through the primary season accounted for $2.4 billion of that total. The other $4 billion or so went to congressional races.

Astoundingly wasteful, correct?

Care to guess how much money we Americans spent on Halloween candy and costumes in 2016?

$9.1 billion. Up from $8.4 billion in 2015.

At least quadrennial elections only happen every 4 years. Halloween ‘wastes’ close to $10 billion of hard-earned American workers’ pay every. single. year.

Maybe we are not spending enough money on campaigns and elections. Perhaps we need to spend more money to help educate the American populace about the great things about democracy and representative government and free market capitalism and above all else, freedom and justice.

There are two things that could help though that we should all seriously consider supporting whether we are Christian-, Jewish-, Muslim- or atheist- Americans:

  1. Abolish all distinctions between ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ money
  2. Mandate that ALL contributions to any political campaign or effort in support of a party or candidate is IMMEDIATELY disclosed through an on-line reporting portal through the Federal Election Commission for federal races and state board of elections for state and local races.

As noted in the beginning of this post, money does not necessarily guarantee victory as we noted in the candidacy of John Connally. Ross Perot spent millions of his own money in 2 failed third-party campaigns for President in 1992 and 1996.

But so much of it today is in ‘undisclosed’ contributions that can find its way into the ‘dark’ campaigns that technically do not support the individual candidacy of any particular candidate but ‘officially’ are considered ‘public advocacy’ of a general issue, all of which is considered ‘free speech’ and guaranteed by the First Amendment.

The best way to shed light on all of this ‘dark money’ is to bring it out into the open and mandate that any dollar spent on any campaign or advocacy effort must be disclosed immediately on-line for all the world to see.

It could be in unlimited amounts or it could as small as a $5 contribution on-line to the Bernie Sanders campaign.

If it is abhorrent to a voter that XYZ Corporation poured $10 million into an advocacy campaign that ostensibly helped this-or-that candidate, then that voter could choose to not vote for that candidate in the primary or general election.

If a voter doesn’t like the fact that the Bernie Sanders campaign collected $5 from tens of millions of contributors, then he or she could look at his contributions on-line and make that decision for themselves.

It would all be about empowering the voter to make well-informed decisions based on facts and figures that are made readily accessible to them by modern technology and the internet.

The odd thing about ‘money in politics’ is that when you really drill down to it, most people who say they are upset or concerned about the vast amount of money in today’s campaigns really are not concerned about the ‘gross amount of money in politics’ but rather the ‘gross amount of money that goes into the OTHER SIDE of politics’.

I was lecturing at a prestigious university here in North Carolina and a student said he was against Big Money in politics. He was an Obama voter in 2012 and was upset that the Koch brothers were getting a lot of play in the press and media outlets for spending so much money on conservative candidates.

‘Are you upset about the vast amount of money George Soros is spending on liberal candidates and causes such as MoveOn.org, all of which are geared to help President Obama get re-elected? I asked him.

No answer.

“You are not really concerned then about ‘money in politics’” I told him in front of the class. ‘You are only concerned about the ‘gross amount’ of money that is being spent on candidates and positions with which you disagree and don’t want to see succeed in November, aren’t you?

Still no answer but everyone in the room could see the hypocrisy of such a position.

Very few people I have ever met in close to 40 years of politics are truly principled when it comes to eradicating the ‘scourge of Big Money’ in campaigns and politics. It is only ‘the other side!’ that is evil when it comes to campaign finance abuse and detestability.

The Christian in politics has to be careful to be honest and consistent when it comes to discussing the volatile issue of money in politics or else risk the chance to be labeled as ‘just another untrustworthy politician like the rest of them.’

There is a critical role for money to be spent on the free speech component of our body of politics. It should be spent on advancing ideas with facts and figures, not innuendo or veiled attacks on the opposite side.

Christians in politics bear an especially high bar to be responsible in the stewardship of campaign funds. But the best solution would be to make all campaign contributions in whatever form or whatever amounts fully disclosable immediately on-line so voters can have the freedom to make their own determination of who to vote for in civil elections.

That is the truest sense of what our Founding Fathers wished to see for generations to come in American after them.

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Reader Comments (2)

Thanks for a post challenging conventional wisdom on the topic.
I'll be watching for how the conversation develops.

February 11, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterClarke Cochran

Clarke Cochran:

Would be interested in hearing your views on this subject.

February 14, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterFrank Hill

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