Reading about the estimated amount of money to be spent on the 2012 presidential campaign — more than $600 million — it is a rather distressing prospect. (One might think that hundreds of millions of dollars could be better invested back into our economy to create jobs rather than buying politicians who may or may not be elected for the greater good.) As many of us like to go home after work and watch reruns of our favorite crime series or the latest episodes of the funniest sitcoms, this year promises to be a doozy if we decide to sit through the commercial breaks. But as elections go, it is sure to be a grueling process for almost everyone involved as smear campaigns, back stabbing, obscure facts and falsehoods fly to secure elected positions of power.
Big money in politics, however, is nothing new. It began in 1828, when Andrew Jackson was the first to hire staff to raise money for his campaign and organize parades and rallies. The proof was in the pudding — voter turnout doubled that election cycle. Twenty years later, Abraham Lincoln almost went bankrupt, spending his own money in combination with private contributions, to win the presidency. In 1907, Theodore Roosevelt proposed legislation to regulate private donations for campaigns, or in his words, to “hamper an unscrupulous man of unlimited means from buying his own way into office.” Perhaps his conscience had gotten to him as he was shortly thereafter scrutinized for promising a senator from New York the French ambassadorship for $200,000 in big-business donations.
Though laws and regulations have morphed since then for better and for worse, according to experts, 2012 is set to trump all other election years with negative campaigning and unlimited resources to squash opponents. The combination of the Supreme Court decision in 2010 that upheld the right of corporations to make unlimited political donations under corporate personhood, and the formation of super political action committees that can take donations of any size and do not even have to reveal donors’ identities as long as the contributions were made by nonprofits is sure to be a game changer. And it’s already begun.
On Tuesday, California legislators voted on AB 1148, the California Disclose Act, which would require that the largest campaign donors be named in TV, radio, web and printed political ads. In a 52-26 vote, the measure failed by two votes needed to win the two-thirds majority — all Democrats but one in favor, and all Republicans but one against it. According to Assemblyman Curt Hagman, R-Chino Hills, who voted against the bill, “Republicans are always for full disclosure.” In theory, politicians should volunteer to reveal their campaign financers, but in reality, a law that would force politicians to do it — well, that is apparently a whole other ballpark. But it really came as no surprise that this bill failed, with a familiar mantra of, “Do as I say, not as I do.”
Though well-intentioned, would knowing the names of the biggest donors be important to the average person? For instance, would it matter to know that Rupert Murdoch, owner of the Fox news conglomerate, or Warren Buffet, a liberal multibillionaire, spent millions in an effort to swing the vote in their favor? Will anyone do the homework to see who is actually paving the golden path to win elections? It seems doubtful.
As the election cycle begins, we suggest tuning out the rhetoric — change the channel, throw away the fliers, ignore the e-mails, etc. (We applaud local residents who did just that during the heated race for Ventura County Supervisor between Audra Strickland and Linda Parks in 2010.) People complain about the problems in our country and in state and local governments, but it seems that too many opt for name recognition, party affiliation or whoever appears to have a better reputation based on the ads we see. We understand that few people have the time to do much investigating on their own, but this year, we recommend referring to various news agencies and other sources to find the most accurate information about the candidates to make informed decisions. Should we be swayed by whoever has the most money and the best negative ads against their opponents, we all fail.