Campaign news this week focused on the war chests of Sen. Hillary Clinton ($26 million), Sen. Barack Obama ($25 million), Mitt Romney ($23 million) and Rudy Guiliani ($15 million). Reading these numbers — and recognizing that this fundraising is going to go on for another 18 months — I feel sorta like I did when I added up the storage in all our external hard drives and realized we have a terabyte of data. And that's not counting the desktop, laptop, and various portable drives.
It's a dual feeling of amazement (geek: wow!) and puzzlement (what's in there that's so important?).
About's Guide to Liberal Politics, Deborah White, wonders if our "first multi-billion dollar presidential campaign [is] really something glorious to crow about."
I say it's not.
But first, a word (or two) about those numbers.
We pay the President of the United States $400,000 a year (it doubled in 2001). That sounds like a lot of money — but relative to the cost of a campaign, it's peanuts. Think about it: candidates have more than $100,000 in their war chests right now. Experts are forecasting a billion dollar campaign.
To raise a billion dollars in one year means generating almost $275,000 each-and-every day. Or $11,460 per hour. This is insane.
There's another way to look at today's $400,000 salary for President, and that's to compare it to Fortune 100 CEO pay. It looks pretty shabby — regardless of how you feel about the relative merits of CEO pay.
And there's yet another measure where it looks very shabby. That's when you take historical presidential salary data and convert it to 2005 dollars. Then we learn that William Howard Taft (1909) raked in the equivalent of $1.6 million. Richard Millhouse Nixon (1969), $1.1 million.
Was there a storm of controversy at the time of the salary increase in 1909 and 1969? I don't know. I'm pretty sure there'd be a storm of controversy today, should Congress decide to raise the salary of the Presidency to more than a million dollars.
So why isn't there a storm of controversy over the high price of political campaigns in general and the presidential campaign in particular?
Rolling Stone contends that a lot of the money is wasted on consultants (they point fingers at Democrats here) and expensive television ads:
The party's campaign strategists operate under contracts that would make Halliburton blush. While their GOP counterparts work for a flat fee on presidential campaigns, Democratic media consultants profit on commission, pocketing as much as ten percent of every dollar spent on TV ads. It's a business model that creates "an inherent conflict of interest," concedes Anita Dunn, who served as a strategist for Bill Bradley in 2000. The more the candidate spends on TV advertising, the more the consultant cashes in. And that compensation is hidden from public scrutiny: Federal campaign reports reveal only what a campaign spends on ads, not how much the consultants skim off the top.
But more and more of us are tuning out — literally (doing something else, probably on the Internet) or figuratively (zapping through those commericals with Tivo or Replay) or practically (we don't show up to vote).
What if all that energy, effort and money was put to something productive? You know, like education (volunteer! donate!) or public television (volunteer! donate!) or youth groups (volunteer! donate!). Or the candidates might, instead, spend their energy doing what they were elected to do: govern.
Previous attempts to limit campaign donations have been rejected by the courts as free speech infringement. But Congress (and the states) could change the rules by fiat (ie, by law). We could have a system more akin to Britain's parlimentary elections if we desired.
That is, we could limit campaign activity to x-weeks (it's six in Britain) before an election. We could stop being enablers to the two big parties: we subsidize their primaries and, this year, too many state legislatures have spent too many legislative hours scheming to be first in the primary/caucus line-up.
We could do it, if we put our (collective) minds to it.