Jul 15, 2012 - By Mark ShieldsMark Hanna, the Cleveland industrialist who managed the winning presidential campaign of his fellow Ohio Republican William McKinley, offered this timeless insight:
"There are two things that are important in politics. The first is money, and I can't remember what the second is."
Today, well over a century later, Hanna is sadly still right. After the Watergate and fundraising scandal of Republican Richard Nixon's 1972 winning re-election campaign, Americans adopted a reform law under which presidential candidates who complied with limits on their campaign contributions and expenditures receive public matching funds for their primary campaigns.
Under the same law, the presidential nominees of the two major parties would, as long as they pledged not to collect any private contributions, received a lump sum grant to run their general election campaigns.
Critics of the reform law condemned the public funding as "food stamps for politicians." But Ronald Reagan in his three White House bids abided by the law's limits on what his campaign could receive and on what it could spend. The Gipper (whom no one accused of being a closet socialist) cashed checks form the U.S. Treasury to finance completely both his winning presidential campaigns.
George H.W. Bush did the same. So, too, did Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford, Michael Dukakis, Bob Dole, Al Gore, John McCain and Walter Mondale. George W. Bush accepted public funding for both of his winning general-election campaigns.
The stated intention of the reform law was to create a "level playing field" by limiting the influence of and the candidates' reliance upon big money.
The reform law in the eight presidential elections from 1976 up until 2008 guaranteed financial parity for the post-convention campaigns of the Democratic and Republican nominees.
Because Republicans are the more anti-regulation, pro-private-sector party, with greater claim upon the deepest pockets of American business, the reform law's "level playing field" deprived the GOP of a major fundraising advantage.
As uncomfortable as it is for Democrats to admit, Barack Obama in 2008 chose to ignore the reform law and instead to become the first presidential nominee since Richard Nixon to run his general election -- with no spending limits -- exclusively by raising private money.
And raise it he did. According to the final reports, the 2008 Obama campaign outspent Republican John McCain by better than two to one, $745 million to $368 million.
But 2008 was the aberrational political year, when the Obama campaign became for millions a crusade.
That was then. This is now.
As the incumbent president continuing to wield executive power, Barack Obama is still able to raise a lot of "protection" contributions from business interests. But whoever captures the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination will be at an enormous fundraising disadvantage against the Republican nominee when the corporate and financial crowd will be free to give, with impunity, to the GOP.
Add to this the senseless Supreme Court decisions that, for the first time since Teddy Roosevelt's presidency, enable corporations to spend directly -- and even anonymously -- to back or attack candidates and make America safe for millionaires to donate millions to phony, so-called "independent" groups that are frequently operated by the candidate's closest supporters.
According to the trusted Center for Responsive Politics, "Business interests dominate, with an overall advantage over organized labor of about 15 to one."
Then we have the new celebrity donors, such as Las Vegas-Macau casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson, who has already donated $35 million to Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney.
The "level playing field" lasted only 32 years. When money speaks, the truth is silenced.
Editor's note: Syndicated columnist Mark Shields is a former Marine who appears regularly on "Newshour" on PBS.
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