The first week of August brought the two debut presidential debates, both on the Republican side: one on August 3 in Manchester, New Hampshire, held by the New Hampshire Union Leader; and one on August 6 in Cleveland, Ohio, hosted by Fox News Channel. For those counting at home, we are fully fifteen months away from the 2016 election. This does not mark, of course, the start of the 2016 election cycle; Former Gov. Jeb Bush (R-FL) announced the formation of his exploratory committee in December 2014.
The inordinately excessive duration of contemporary presidential election cycles makes for quality fodder for political pundits and great copy for political writers. But is it healthy for the country? In the United Kingdom, the campaign process for electing a prime minister lasts all of a month. Contrast that with the American system, which carries on for nearly two years.
The length of the today’s election cycles exacerbates the underlying problem: money. In this author’s opinion as one who has worked in Congress and on innumerable campaigns, money is the single most corrosive and damaging element of modern American politics. The viability of a candidacy for office is determined not by the potential candidate’s ideas, experience, or intellect, but instead by the individual’s fundraising prowess. This is fundamentally perverse and should be antithetical to American democracy. The amount of money a candidate must collect in order to be competitive naturally rises with the level of the office sought, so presidential campaigns stand out as the most eye-popping of said numbers. For the 2012 presidential race, according to Politico, the Obama campaign raised a total of $1.123 billion, while the Romney operation’s final tally was $1.019 billion. The nominees in the current cycle will certainly need to take in at least that much, and likely more. The combined amount raised by the two campaigns in 2012, roughly $2.142 billion, is at once breathtaking and deeply disheartening when one stops to ponder what over two billion dollars could do for the country.
It stands to reason, as a function of common sense as relates to human nature, that donors to campaigns are not giving their money to a candidate out of the kindness of their hearts. All donors want something in return for their money. Our officeholders in this country are therefore beholden to their money, much as they might argue otherwise. This becomes a profoundly magnified issue as concerns large-dollar donors, exemplified by figures like Charles and David Koch, Sheldon Adelson, and an assortment of other billionaires. These mega-donors are found almost exclusively on the Republican side of the aisle, the one exception of note being Tom Steyer, the San Francisco environmentalist. The Koch brothers have pledged to spend, through their network of wealthy contributors, upwards of $900 million in this presidential cycle. It should therefore come as no surprise that Republican presidential candidates trip over themselves to sing the Koch brothers’ praises in hopes of being anointed their preferred candidate, and the recipient of their vast contributory capacity. But the practical effect of this arrangement is that, should said preferred candidate be victorious in November 2016, the brothers Koch would have essentially exclusive influence over the direction of the country; how could this hypothetical new president, in office as a result of the behemoth sum of money funneled into their campaign from these siblings, dare say no the aforementioned siblings?
So, how did our country find itself in this predicament? A principal reason is the 2010 Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. The decision removed the ban on campaign contributions from corporate entities established by the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, colloquially known as McCain-Feingold for its chief sponsors, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and then-Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI). In his majority opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy held that such bans were violative of the free speech protection guaranteed by the First Amendment to the Constitution. In other words, the conservative majority of the court declared that money was a expression of free speech. The country can thank the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision additionally for the advent of the SuperPAC (Political Action Committee). SuperPACs cannot write checks to campaigns or political parties themselves, and can thus collect unlimited monetary contributions from donors of both the human and corporate varieties. The bar on direct contributions, however, does not mean that SuperPACs cannot spend on behalf of the candidate; this becomes key in terms of buying time to run television spots, the price tag for which can run well into seven-figure territory per week depending on the size of the media market.
Corporations simply must not be permitted to make contributions to campaigns. As then-Justice John Paul Stevens wrote brilliantly in his dissent, “…corporations have no consciences, no beliefs, no feelings, no thoughts, no desires. Corporations help structure and facilitate the activities of human beings, and their ‘personhood’ often serves as useful legal fiction. But they are not themselves members of ‘We the People’ by whom and for whom our Constitution was established.”
How to stem the tide, then, of the unfettered sums of cash, particularly from corporations, corrupting our political system? First and foremost, the nation desperately needs a reversal of the ruinous Citizens United decision, which I view as perhaps singularly the worst decision from the high court in at least a generation. A reversal can be accomplished by bringing a case before the court that challenges Citizens United, but the same five justices who voted in favor of the 2010 holding remain on the court today. Another option is Congressional legislation. Still one more possibility is an amendment to the U.S. Constitution limiting the ability to contribute to a campaign to people, thereby banning corporations from doing so. Such an amendment has been endorsed by no less than presidential candidates Hillary Rodham Clinton and Bernie Sanders.
Ultimately, further steps need to be implemented to cleanse our political system of the stench of money. But remedying the mistake of Citizens United is a starting point. America is better than this; we have been in the past, and we must be so again.