Teenage Mutant Ninja Politics

Campaign finance follies confirm there's gotta be a better way

Teenage Mutant Ninja Politics
Illustration By Doug Potter

Citizens hoping that the onset of campaign finance reform might usher in a new political millennium will have to wait a little longer.

Shortly after signing the McCain-Feingold federal legislation last week (in a private ceremony apparently intended to keep the embarrassment to a minimum), President Bush traveled to Dallas to raise $1.4 million for the benefit of Republican Senate candidate John Cornyn, plus another half-mil for the GOP, with much more to come. The Democrats, on the other hand, hadn't waited that long. The day after the bill passed the Senate, the Dems accepted a cool, record-breaking $7 million from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle cartoon tycoon, Haim Saban. (Remember the Good Old Days, before the Turtles had sold out?)

It's true that the new law won't actually take effect until November (after the current election cycle), and it's not even clear that it will have much effect on the rivers of cash now underwriting our political rituals. With the increase in donated "hard money" that the law will allow, for example, Bush would likely have doubled his ante for Cornyn. And insiders are predicting that the soft money will continue to flow, but now to state parties -- subject both to more special interest pressure and less regulation than the national organizations.

It is clear that whatever the prospective effect of the law, the two major parties are determined to spend the next few months raking in the cash like Enron before the deluge. And in a less-noticed but even more revealing gesture of disdain, Bush followed up his McCain-Feingold signature with the appointment of GOP lawyer Michael E. Toner -- who has made a career of opposing campaign finance laws -- as a new member of the Federal Election Commission. Earlier this year, Toner had described McCain-Feingold as "a stake through the heart of grass-roots and voter-education initiatives." His appointment to the FEC is roughly comparable to assigning the Big Bad Wolf to supervise quality control at Perdue Farms.

Yes, it's a New Era in American politics.

It's Money That Matters

Closer to home, the Democratic primary has served to confirm the stronger-than-ever stranglehold that money now has on our politics. Despite much headline speculation and pundit handicapping in the governor's race, in the end novice Tony Sanchez was able to bury the more seasoned Dan Morales not because of any policy differences -- a few real, most illusory -- but because Morales never had enough money in the bank to compete with Sanchez's fortune and his willingness to spend "whatever it takes" to win the governorship. And there is no small irony in Sanchez's demonstrated conviction (which will be shared by his incumbent Republican opponent) that no amount of money is too much to spend in a race to preside over a state government dedicated to the proposition that we can fix all our problems -- education, health care, environment, transportation, etc. -- without spending any more money at all.

The Democratic Senate race at first looks like the exception that proves the rule. The impecunious schoolteacher Victor Morales survived the first round against the well-funded former Mayor Ron Kirk and Congressman Ken Bentsen, even knocking Bentsen out of the running in a crowded field. On matters of policy, the differences between Morales and Kirk are minimal -- in their debate last week, they could barely find an issue on which to disagree. But should Morales pull off yet another long-shot upset in the run-off (and without Sanchez's golden coattails to goose turnout in the Valley, it seems very unlikely), he will certainly be buried in November by John Cornyn and his Republican money. Kirk, at least, has an outside chance of raising enough cash to give Cornyn a serious race. Morales has none.

That's no exception, that's the inexorable working out of commercial destiny.

Of the Rich -- for the Rich

All this said, should we surrender entirely to cynicism and declare that our national political system has finally degenerated into an aristocratic parlor game of To the Richest Go the Spoils? Perhaps. There is something to be said for pulling the mask from our politics, as a similar delusion has been dislodged from our economy, rapidly becoming an increasingly rigged lottery game dividing the handful of the blessed from the host of the damned. If, as La Rochefoucauld memorably put it, "Hypocrisy is the homage vice pays to virtue," virtue has never been so honored as by our current political leadership, cheerfully consolidating a corporatized plutocracy in the travestied name of popular democracy.

But before we throw in the towel, it remains to be said that McCain-Feingold did not begin as the exercise in party duplicity it may well become. There remains real, consistent sentiment at the grassroots -- across the political spectrum -- for campaign finance reform that is meaningful, comprehensive, and effective. In the long run, that will mean choking off as much of the fast money as possible, and biting the bullet on public financing of elections, and eventually proportional representation -- a system that works very well in most Western democracies, although you wouldn't necessarily know it from the persistent gnashing of sharpened teeth in the political-cash fattened U.S. media.

At the federal level, the possibility of public financing remains remote, at least in the short term. But here in Austin, we now have a chance to consider just such a change, in the Austin Fair Elections Act which (thanks to citizen initiative) has landed on the May ballot. The charter amendment proposal may well turn out to be too minimal or too complicated to finish the job -- but neither flaw is an argument not to begin it. Similar initiatives elsewhere have already loosened the stranglehold of the major parties on the range of available candidates -- and for any voter who has stared at her ballot in November, longing grimly for "None of the Above," that alone should be enough to recommend it.

For more information about the Austin Fair Elections Act, see www.cleancampaigns.org.

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campaign finance reform, McCain-Feingold, George W. Bush, Haim Saban, John Cornyn, Michael E. Toner, Federal Election Commission, Tony Sanchez, Dan Morales, Victor Morales, Ron Kirk, La Rochefoucauld, Austin Fair Elections Act, Clean Campaigns

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