Politicians Now Wear Big Money as Badge of Honor
By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Monday, July 26, 2004; Page E01
When Bill Frenzel first came to Congress in 1971, fundraising wasn't exactly a dirty word, but it also wasn't anything that he and his colleagues talked about in public. Back then, Frenzel says, voters wanted their candidates to "think statesmanlike thoughts," unsullied by the money chase.
But by the time Frenzel retired 20 years later, the amounts of political giving had exploded, and politicians not only spoke openly about their fundraising, they also began to boast about it. Although Frenzel, a Minnesota Republican, was initially "aghast," he now accepts it as the way things are.
Money in politics is cool these days. Even in the voters' mind, pollsters say, campaign cash has gotten an extreme makeover.
For proof, look no farther than Boston where the Democratic National Convention opens today. The multimillion-dollar extravaganza, paid for largely by private donations, is testament to the unabashed impact of election-year lucre. Discretion has been overwhelmed and not merely at the convention itself. All over town, interest groups and lobbyists are underwriting hundreds of parties for elected officials and their staffs -- some for fun, all for the purpose of currying favor, and a few to put even more dollars into incumbents' campaign coffers.
The Republican convention in New York at the end of August will be just as garish and over-the-top. Yet no one at either place will apologize -- quite the opposite. In 2004, a brimming treasury is a symbol of status, not of shame.
"There was a time when political money was considered somewhat tainted," recalls Jennifer E. Duffy, a senior analyst at the Cook Political Report. But those days, she says, are gone.
In fact, Democrats will crow all week about the fundraising prowess of their presumptive nominee, Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.). They see his campaign's million-dollar-a-day collections as evidence that the popular tide is with him. No one even whispers, as they might have in bygone days, that the candidate is on the take.
There are lots of reasons for that and here are two of them: First, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), loser of the Republican presidential nomination in 2000 and second, former Vermont governor Howard Dean, who lost the Democratic nomination this year. Nothing could be more ironic, of course, since both men, as outspoken populists, regularly scorned the very activity that they helped to promote.
Nonetheless, after McCain beat George W. Bush in the New Hampshire primary in 2000, he famously raised $1 million on his Web site overnight. He also got plenty of old-fashioned contributions as well. But because McCain had made his name bad-mouthing narrow interests, political professionals saw his windfall not as a benefit bestowed on him by those nasty interests but as the leading indication of a citizens' revolt.
In this year's presidential contest, Dean multiplied McCain's Internet success many times. He also turned what could have been perceived as an embarrassment of riches into a badge of honor by trumpeting his Web site's huge number of small donors. After Dean's bid collapsed, Democrats kept right on giving -- to Kerry. By the spring of 2004 they had become so well acquainted with the credit-card-and-click method of giving that they were ready to use it often.
Kerry's aides have seized on the populist rhetoric of McCain and Dean to justify -- no, glorify -- the avalanche of cash they have received. "The vast majority of our money is coming from small, individual donors," says a senior Kerry adviser who spoke only on the condition of anonymity. "What used to be large, special-interest contributions are now small contributions from people who are excited about the campaign. Their sheer numbers speak to the level of enthusiasm there is about the candidate."
It's also true that money continues to come in larger chunks as well -- directly to the Kerry and Bush campaigns and also indirectly to them through independent groups that are, in effect, operating on their behalf. But voters don't seem to care.
Bill McInturff of the Republican polling firm Public Opinion Strategies says that the people he's listened to lately have shown little if any outrage at the deluge of donations. "The idea that all fundraising is somehow illegitimate is a post-Watergate reaction," McInturff says. "But we're a long way away from that period and that culture. Our focus groups presume that politicians are going to raise a ton of dough, and they don't have much negative reaction."
Lawmakers clearly know this and have come to learn something else as well: Money begets money. The more they talk up their fundraising skills, the more contributions flow their way. "Talking about money is part of the way you get it," the Kerry aide said. "Talking aloud about people making those donations helps increase the level of people giving."
And this year, zealots on both sides are very eager to give. Partisan vitriol has washed away what little anti-money feeling the public might still harbor. If dumping more cash into the political system is the only way they can elect their guy (and keep the other guy out), that's obviously what many people are determined to do.
Despite the enactment of campaign finance reform two years ago, 2004 will be a record-shattering year for political fundraising. Michael J. Malbin of the nonpartisan Campaign Finance Institute estimates that total giving to federal candidates will smash through the $3 billion level. The Center for Responsive Politics put total donations during the last presidential election in 2000 at $2.9 billion.
Election spending by corporations has declined this election cycle due primarily to the banning of "soft money" donations to the national parties. But that's been more than made up for, Malbin reports, "by notable increases both in contributions above $1,000 to congressional candidates and in ones of less than $200 to presidential candidates and parties." Gargantuan gifts to the conventions' host committees and to independent groups known as "527s" also have more than taken up the slack.
The trend has been assisted overall by the freedom politicians now realize they have, to plead for funds aggressively and not to be penalized by voters for doing so. Just ask Frenzel, who studies Congress as a guest scholar at the Brookings Institution. "There's a new style of politician who believes that raising money should be a matter of pride and who knows that if you raise a lot, people will give you even more," he says. "The incentive in this case is to raise more and to do it vigorously -- because it works."
That's an awfully long way from the innocent days of 1971.
A Common Curse
As I've noted in a column earlier this year, one victim of the falloff in the public's interest in campaign fundraising has been Common Cause, the well-known "citizens' lobby." The organization has been struggling to find a new focus ever since the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform became law two years ago.
Last week the group cut its workforce by 20 percent due to budgetary woes. A spokeswoman said the layoff of 10 of the organization's 50 employees was caused by a decline in income from big donors, but she expressed optimism that Common Cause will soldier on.
Jeffrey Birnbaum writes about the intersection of government and business every other Monday. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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