Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 28 December 2014

Greenbacks at the root of political power in Washington

Billing himself as an agent of change for Washington, Barack Obama has inspired legions of young and old voters.

However, with over a hundred million dollars of his massive campaign budget yet to spend, it may the tried-and-true strategy of outspending his opponent that finally earns him the Oval Office.

But does Obama's unprecedented fundraising represent a mortal blow to campaign finance reform efforts in America?

Or, has he shaken up the system enough so that ordinary Joes and Janes now have as much potential influence as corporations and special interest groups?

During this Presidential election cycle, all the candidates combined have spent $1.3bn, a figure nearly double the $717m spent in 2004, and vastly greater than the $66m that was spent by candidates during the 1976 White House sweepstakes.

And just this week Obama spent between $3m and $5m on a 30-minute primetime TV ad.

Opponents of campaign finance reform contend that political donations represent true expressions of democracy, wherein people willing to part with their hard-earned pay are putting their money where their mouths are, so to speak.

Proponents of reform say that argument is nonsense, given that the mountains of corporate and Political Action Committee cash that is poured into campaigns has always proportionally dwarfed money donated from individuals.

But, by using the internet to help him raise more money than anyone ever has from the largest-ever pool of donors, Obama has radically altered the fundraising paradigm.

Since throwing his hat in the ring, the Illinois senator has raked in more than $600m — $300m of which will be spent during his one-on-one with McCain.

According to his campaign, Obama's record-obliterating monthly haul of $153m in September came from 163,000 different donors, and the average contribution was under $100.

To date, more than three million people have donated to his campaign.

Up until the end of primary season in June, John McCain raised $190m.

Unlike Obama, he then opted for public financing and is limited to spending $84m during his face-off with Obama.

The Republican National Committee, however, can still assist him — presumably in more concrete ways than the $150,000 it splashed out last month on Sarah Palin's clothing, hair and make-up.

But does the fact that Obama has raised so much from so many mean that the era of lobbyist-driven influence peddling is doomed?

Hardly.

If elected, Obama won't be the only politician in Washington fighting his or her corner in the new year.

All 535 members of Congress will be pursuing their own agendas, and virtually all are beholden to armies of special interest groups and lobbyists who pumped gobs of money into their campaign coffers to get them elected.

And these groups didn't spread tens of millions around because democracy is their favourite charity. They want their investments to yield results, to get laws passed that safeguard and advance their economic interests, and to thwart those that don't — such as campaign finance reform.

However, regardless of whether or not Obama's funding success changes the way money buys influence in Washington, if he's elected, parents across the US will then be justified in telling their children that anyone can grow up to be President.

That may be true — but hopefully they'll also let them know how much money they'll need to stuff into their piggy banks to do it.

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