Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Politics for Millionaires Only?

The most repugnant circumstance applying to the effort to gain public office in the past few decades, especially since the immediate aftermath of the Democrat Convention of 1968, is the objective by many elective wannabes to "buy" – yes, PURCHASE – the office. Politics has become a millionaire's game, a toy or a distraction or an obsession, something to fill a life no longer demanding work for the support of it or its dependents. Some candidates still must work at fundraising, especially the first-timers, who can then use incumbency, as nearly all politicians do, to stay in office, selling whatever it takes to maintain the prize, but the biggest prizes, by and large, belong to the people with money.

Item: Senator Clinton ran out of money earlier this year and "loaned" herself a cool five million or so. She began running out of money again a short time ago, necessitating another personal "loan" of about the same amount. These are not loans, of course, though they can become loans if she's elected since she will then have the power to get back her investment in one way or another. How simple to tell a foreign government, for instance, that what it wants is readily available if the right palm is crossed…with the proper absolutely discreet method of payment (the Lincoln bedroom loved by the Chinese in the 90s?). If she loses, she's lost her investment, but not to worry, she has millions left and hubby Bill can make the loss back in no time by just making speeches.

By December 2007, Mitt Romney had written more than $17 million to his campaign – a loan, of course – that now represents a very bad investment…but not to worry again because Romney is worth millions. Candidates who don't accept government money can give their campaigns all they want; otherwise, they're limited to $50,000. John Edwards accepted government money, at least suspecting strongly that the gamble was too risky, which shows just how smart he was, although Edwards' $400-haircuts are another indicator that rich folks can vie for office and not sweat the details.

Bruce Lunsford is a rich guy in Kentucky (Vencor honcho, though Vencor went down the tubes but Lunsford didn't) who spent a cool $7 million in the Kentucky Democrat primary gubernatorial race in 2003 only to become discomfited, pull out, and support the republican in the election. In 2007, he sank a similar amount trying to get the same office, lost the primary election, and has just thrown in a million or so in the democrat primary race against another rich guy (financing himself, of course) to grab the seat of Senator Mitch McConnell.

Lunsford is something like $15 million into politics-investment with nothing to show for it, but not to worry since he has multimillions spread around here and there. With his other investments consistently covering him with assets, he has little to do so why not just try to buy a senate seat, especially since this seems to be a good year nationally for democrats? Some bored people buy motorcycles; others buy elective offices. Lunsford's opponent the other day tossed in $500,000 to his campaign in order to get elected, buy his toy and – oh yes – save the nation.

The best way to get to be governor in Kentucky is to buy the lieutenant governor spot, then using the position for whatever's necessary (bought and sold), buy the governor's seat. After spearing the lt.-guv seat in the 90s, horseman Brereton Jones went on to grab the governor's chair, during the four-year term of which he spent oodles of time "getting back" his investment. Indeed, his adjutant general (an appointive job) was rewarded with 18 months in the Big House for putting the arm on his subordinate officers to pony up and see that Jones's investment was made whole. That's a legal no-no, but the general took the fall, not the guv. The governor before him introduced the novel idea of not only recouping the investment but collecting interest on it, as well. He later went wildly bankrupt and carried a number of his "friends" down with him. Rich people don't have to actually have all that money…just have smarts enough to make folks think they have it. It's always interesting to see the crooks undone by fellow crooks.

A lot of folks think TV is the corrupter, and it is, in a way. However, it was the replacement of the national conventions with state primaries regarding the selection of a nominee that is the actual culprit. This cockamamie restructuring of the system after 1968 has resulted in protracted election seasons that demand megabucks to be sustained. Obama had hardly found his Senate desk in 2005 before he began running for the presidency, was already a sure bet in 2006 and an actual announced candidate nearly two years before the 2008 November election. Clinton has been at it just as long currently, though she actually started her presidential run along about 2001, when she arrived in the Senate from her adopted state, New York.

After the fiascos occasioned by the disallowance of the primary votes in two of the largest states, Florida and Michigan, coupled with the inordinate length of campaigns and their intolerable costs, the democrats will surely change some more rules after this year's dogfight. Clinton and Obama have turned the exercise into a circus – a very costly circus – as well as completely boring a public long since jaded by the posturing, lying, and transparent opportunism easily identified as central to the candidates' efforts.

Obama and his wife have made millions so he's anything but poor but has raised a ton of money working toward a possible incumbency. He and John McCain have proven that people like Clinton and Romney, as well as Lunsford in Kentucky, can pour their money into the risky business of politics but are by no means guaranteed success.

And so it goes.

Jim Clark

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