Elections in America have come to resemble a river of mud and money, and here in the 25th Congressional District we are approaching flood stage. American Crossroads, a Karl Rove enterprise, has committed to throwing more than $400,000 into a last-ditch effort to defeat first-term Democratic Congressman Dan Maffei, who also has the endorsement of the Working Families Party.
Here’s how American Crossroads likes to describe itself. “American Crossroads is a new kind of non-profit political organization dedicated to renewing America’s commitment to individual liberty, limited government, free enterprise and a strong national defense—through informed and effective political action by citizens like you. We face a decision between holding our government to a higher standard of financial integrity and accountability, and allowing the government to keep spending our tax dollars wastefully, concealing the true costs of legislation it passes, and accumulating reckless levels of debt to foreign nations.”
Strange words from a group whose donors remain secret. Well, technically the donors to American Crossroads are known: Half the money comes from two Texas developers, one of whom was responsible for the Swift Boat ads that put the final nail in the John Kerry campaign’s coffin in 2004. Their sister organization, American Crossroads GPS, is exempt from disclosure requirements, since it is limited to spending half of its money on political activity.
The money spent by the two candidates in the 25th, Maffei and his Republican-Conservative-Independence challenger Ann Marie Buerkle, already far exceeds anything spent for this seat in any previous contest. Maffei has come close to raising $3 million for his re-election campaign, outraising Buerkle at least 5-to-1, even though he is considered a pretty solid favorite. Buerkle, on the other hand, has been the beneficiary of lots of national money from unnamed donors.
Everywhere you go, the campaigns seem to follow. It’s gotten so it’s not safe to answer the phone. It’s not safe to turn on the TV. As decision day gets closer, the messages bear less relevance to the issues and focus more on negative characterizations of the opponent.
If this were just an annoyance we confronted each fall it would be easy enough to endure, but the endless campaigning and begging for campaign cash threaten to make the act of governing itself just a sideshow.
The gridlock, the nastiness and pointless partisanship that demonizes the opponent (very different from the healthy partisanship that clarifies issues)—it’s all tied to the money. Every politician you talk to professes how much they hate raising money, but they all feel obliged to beg for it incessantly lest their opponent garner an “unfair” advantage. Ditto on negative campaigning: They say they hate it, but it works, so bring out the shovels.
Every political race becomes an arms race to see who can bring in the most cash. And while no politician believes that his or her vote can be bought (if you want to see an angry politician, just hint at such), no one in politics seriously believes that special interests donate without an expectation of, at the very least, greater access than an average citizen might enjoy.
This year the levee broke when the Supreme Court decided that corporate and labor union money could be spent on campaigns. The Citizens United case overturned a century of legal precedent, unleashed the current gusher of spending, and derailed any number of reasonable attempts to reform our campaign finance system.
At each step of the way, when campaign finance reforms are enacted, the campaigns find ways around the limits and the disclosure requirements. Someday we need to come to our senses and realize that only publicly financed campaigns can keep elections from being bought and sold. Given the Supreme Court’s startling assertion that spending money on a campaign is a protected exercise of free speech, it may take a constitutional amendment to get us back to elections based on ideas and not bank accounts.
Until then, it’s up to us to pay attention to the substance, and ignore the commercials. We should feel pretty foolish if we make such important decisions based on the content of 30-second commercials. That would make as much sense as buying car insurance from a gecko.
Read Ed Griffin-Nolan’s award-winning commentary weekly in the Syracuse New Times.