News & Current Affairs

August 5, 2008

Money’s power marks US election

If Barack Obama wins his way to the White House, one quiet decision may turn out to have been crucial.

Towards the end of June, he announced that he would not participate in the system of public funding for elections in the United States.

That means he can raise – and spend – perhaps $300m (£150m) compared with the $84.1m (£43.6m) that Mr McCain will get from the tax-payer under the public funding system.

Under the rules, candidates who take public funding for the general election have their spending capped. Accordingly, Mr Obama will be free to spend – Mr McCain will be constrained, although he will be bolstered by the Republican National Committee, which has far more money than the Democratic National Committee.

Tad Devine, who was one of the main strategists for John Kerry in 2004, told the that Mr Obama had learnt from the “swift boating” that floored the Democratic contender.

(A group calling itself Swift Boat Veterans for Truth ran a series of adverts accusing Mr Kerry of lying about his service in Vietnam to get one of his medals for bravery and two of his three Purple Hearts.)

He says of the Kerry decision: “If we had not accepted public funding we would have had on hand enormous resources and when those Swift Boat attacks came, we would have dealt with them in the medium in which they came, which was paid advertising.”

Mr Obama had indicated that he wanted to stick with the public funding system. Renouncing it, accordingly brought Republican allegations of an about-turn.

Mr Devine, a Democrat, sees it differently.

“It’s a testament that this guy can make tough choices,” he says.

Democrats are still smarting from the mauling they got from the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.

They were a group of individuals who formed what is known as a 527, after the clause in the tax code that applies to such advocacy groups.

Under the rules, these 527s cannot be connected to a campaign.

But a connection to a campaign can be ambiguous, and where there is ambiguity there will be lawyers.

Democracy

Overlooking the corner of M Street NW and 26th Street in Washington DC is the office of the lawyer for the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and for the Bush-Cheney campaign.

He is one and the same man, Benjamin Ginsburg.

He told me: “There was not a direct link. The truth is that I provided legal functions for them.

“I didn’t deal with the messages and I was very careful to make sure there was no co-ordination between the two in terms of their messages and activities.”

Mr Ginsburg is a charming man with a mind like a laser. His office is a museum of mementos of big historical events in which he has been central.

In one corner, there is a metal voting booth from Palm Beach County in Florida in 2000, complete with chads, those small bits of paper – small bits of contentious paper – on which the presidency turned.

He is a great defender of 527s, the outside groups that are raucous and unpredictable in elections.

“This is a democracy,” he says. “People are allowed to express their views outside the political party structure.”

Another Republican, Michael Toner – who used to be chairman of the Federal Election Commission, which polices elections – says the imbalance in funds this time shows that the system is not working.

He wants more money to be available to candidates who take public funding.

Americans do not spend too much on elections, he thinks, but too little.

“Americans spent $3bn (£1.5bn) last year on potato chips. Isn’t the next leader of the free world worth at least that much?

Fair game

Democrats tend to see Swift Boat Veterans, and the campaign they ran last time, as way below the belt.

Republicans, in return, see it as pretty fair game and point their fingers back at campaigns run by MoveOn.org in particular, which has depicted the US military leader in Iraq, Gen Petraeus as General Betray Us.

Move On is a big web-based organisation that does take much money from ordinary people but also in the past from billionaires like George Soros. Ilyse Hogue, MoveOn’s campaigns director, defended the adverts.

“Raising that issue is critical to having a dialogue into how we responsibly and safely withdraw our troops,” she said. “We’re proud of our record.”

“MoveOn is member-driven, small donor driven. Over the past ten years, 90% of our fund-raising has been from small owners. The current average donation is $42 (£21).

“Swift Boat Veterans for Truth was all big donor funded. It was a couple of big donors calling the shots. That’s the antithesis of how MoveOn works and believes that civil society should work.”

One of the benefits for Mr Obama of raising his own money rather than relying on public funding may be that he can keep better control of his own message.

The reasoning runs that there is little point in giving to candidates if their spending is capped. Why give what cannot be spent?

So his hope may be that giving to his campaign directly might seem more effective for his supporters than giving to fringe groups. So runs the argument.

If that is so, he will be better able to meet whatever gets thrown at him, by fringe groups implying that he is a Muslim, for example.

“They will try that,” says Harold Ickes, one of the legendary political workers in Washington for the Democrats and formerly deputy chief of staff at the Clinton White House, where he earned the appellation “Garbage Man” because of his role as a cleaner up of political mess.

“If you’re talking about a tight election and enough people are convinced of that in Ohio, it can make Ohio slip into the Republican column.”

And race may surface – not formally from the McCain campaign, but from the outside groups.

As Mr Ickes said: “We’re going to find just how deep race cuts in this country.”

The first part of Steve Evans’s two-part investigation into the “The Billion Dollar Election” is broadcast on the World Service on Monday 4 August.

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