Columns » Warwick Sabin

Commercial break

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Can you imagine politics without money?

For one thing, the politicians would suddenly have a lot of time on their hands. As it stands now, typical candidates spend most of their time on the phone asking for money or attending fund-raising events. Once elected, their days are spent meeting with lobbyists of one form or another, and then in the evenings they make appearances at receptions hosted by more lobbyists.

They do this because the biggest advantage of incumbency is the ability to round up large donations from the political action committees and corporations with which they have developed relationships while in office. And that’s why — even though they always complain about having to devote so much time to fund-raising — the politicians don’t use their power to change the system.

Occasionally a campaign finance reform movement takes hold, as it did three years ago, when the McCain-Feingold bill went into effect. But that legislation didn’t change the way money influences politics, because it imposed only circumstantial rules that are easy to bypass.

Gov. Mike Huckabee probably had that in mind when he told members of the Arkansas Political Science Association in mid-February that he would favor having no limits on the size of campaign contributions, as long as everything was reported. He said that capping donations is useless, because anyone can find a way to legally funnel as much money to a politician as he or she wants. Disclosure, he maintained, is the only way to protect against undue influence.

But disclosure is only effective to a certain point. Many longtime office-holders openly accept tons of money from certain interests and then blatantly carry water for those interests, sometimes at the expense of their own constituents. The quid pro quo is obvious and documented, but it hardly ever provokes the kind of outrage that gets a politician voted out of office.

That’s because it takes money to successfully communicate these days. When challengers cannot raise as much money as incumbents, they are less likely to make a strong case for their candidacies. And incumbents can use the proceeds from their backroom deals to project a clean and wholesome image for the home crowd.

Knowing this, I think we’ve been approaching this problem all wrong. I agree with Huckabee that it is practically impossible to separate a politician from money that someone is determined to give.

Instead, we would do better to remove the reason why the politicians are so desperate for the money in the first place: televised political advertising.

By far, most of the money spent by any campaign is used to conceive, produce and purchase broadcast time for TV spots. It’s the single biggest reason why campaigns have become exponentially more expensive over the last 50 years.

Candidates are willing to pay so much because TV advertising is so effective. If they air a decent spot, they’ll usually see an immediate boost in their polling. The more money they raise, the better the ad and the more times it can run.

And yet, campaign ads are also the most destructive and least informative kind of political communication. They’re superficial, often negative and sometimes without basis in fact. We would be better off as a society to be rid of them.

But that’s an infringement on free speech! Maybe so, but since 1971 the U.S. has prohibited tobacco advertising on television for the public good. Political TV ads are similarly harmful, both directly (through their effect on the national discourse) and indirectly (by necessitating the money-grubbing culture so prevalent in our government today).

Plus, unlike other forms of communication, the television airwaves actually belong to us as citizens, so we have the power to regulate them more strictly. Why should the government allow itself to be undermined so that a few companies can profit from their leases on a public resource? The British follow that logic, having banned political ads on television and radio.

If we ever went ahead with something like that, the law would have to be written to ensure there were no loopholes. Since we call them “commercials” anyway, perhaps we could restrict television advertising to commercial products.

Immediately the cost of running a campaign would fall dramatically. Without the need to raise so much money, the politicians probably wouldn’t know what to do with all of their newfound time.

Although hopefully they would suddenly find themselves too busy for the lobbyists.

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