Sunday, May 6, 2012

What all that money buys

By Bill Kraus

In light of the recent and predicted excessive spending on politics it is easy to focus on and complain about how much is being spent and on what. There are some undesirable side effects of this extravagance, though, that don’t get sufficient attention.

Some are obvious.

This embarrassment of political riches suborns:

Is there anyone who doesn’t think multi-digit donations are buying something? Access for sure. Ego food as well. It is surprising how many with money think that power is more important and will lavish their wealth on anyone who will put them into proximity to power. The money is not necessarily buying something untoward, but it could be, and it is, for sure, buying something.

Paranoia. There is a widespread belief by candidates and incumbents that money is the direct, and maybe the only route to power. This belief is both fostered and exploited by the economic beneficiaries of the unseemly spending on political advertising: the professional campaigners who are being paid to spend the money and the media, mostly television stations, that fill the airwaves with the commercials the professionals have produced.

Causes and interests. The independent spending is largely pro- or anti-something. Guns. Jury awards. Beliefs. It is also pro- or anti-candidates who share those beliefs. What gets less or no attention is the more general interest on which little spending is lavished and the governing issues and ideas which draw little interest and even less money.

The press, which likes things like polls and numbers, makes us think that they think winning the money race is as important as winning the vote race. At least their coverage of the money race would indicate that’s what they believe. The reason one otherwise worthy gubernatorial candidate’s prospects of winning office are dismissed is for lack of money. The reason another otherwise well qualified and substantial gubernatorial candidate’s campaign never left the starting blocks is ditto.

Money is not attracted to new ideas or to candidates who might bring something creative to the offices being sought. A lot of money goes to make sure the status quo stays intact.

Money is heavily committed to ideology. Since money is intended to elect candidates similarly inclined, we tend to end up with legislatures and executive offices dominated by ideologues. The problem with that, as we are reminded every day, is that ideologues are not good at governing. They are not interested in abstractions like compromise and considering whether others with different views about anything or everything may have the benefit of seeing those things differently because they have a different perspective. Ideologues indulge in gridlock. Governing must be gridlock proof.

The recall fever which started last year and is will reach new heights soon is all the proof one needs about the fact that money is important (like those who have it) without being very smart. The first wave of recall elections showed that there comes a point when those with too much money don’t have enough worthwhile ways to spend it. I count misspending or overspending as stupid. My nomination for winning in the most stupid category is the finals of the gubernatorial recall. What we don’t know is how many will turn out for a June election or how many of those people who signed recall petitions are eligible to vote or are going to do so. What we do know is that almost all of the people being polled who say they are going to vote have already decided for whom. So millions of dollars are going to be spent on advertising to influence people who are not susceptible to being influenced. That is really stupid.

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Bill Kraus is the Co-Chair of Common Cause in Wisconsin's State Governing Board

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