Money-in-Politics: 1992 to 2016

A Modest Proposal

by Rob Hager

William Goldman, author of “Princess Bride,” attracts more recognition from this screenplay and movie than his other work combined.

Among many great moments in the classic film, the most memorable line may be Vizzini’s. Delivered by Wallace Shawn (having just cut the rope the Dread Pirate Roberts is climbing):


One might share a similar moment with the Republican funders as Donald Trump kepts climbing , one primary at a time, to now becoming the presumptive nominee over his Republican opposition’s best funded plans. The Convention looms and the “Anybody but Trump” movement within the party is assembling their last ditch attempts to stop the ‘usurper’ who threatens all their best laid plans. The Convention by most estimates is going to be a brouhaha.

For years the Republican establishment – from Congress to state houses, think tanks to political consultancies, lobbyists to the “billionaire class” — had, they thought, set the stage for a new Republican White House. The new figurehead at 1600 Pennsylvania was to be determined by dynastic succession. The plans were made, Supreme Court decisions enabling more money in politics had cleared the path, and billions were to be raised for the chosen one.

Two individuals, the Koch brothers, publicly committed themselves at their annual funders retreat to spend upwards of $800 million. A Las Vegas wheeler dealer named Sheldon pledged hundreds of millions more, if a candidate was favored and pledged to follow the power broker’s Mideast policy preferences. And, among many movers and shakers, few doubted the power of long-time Republican organizer and media powerfhouse Roger Ailes with his Murdoch-controlled Fox media empire with its cable reach, and Rush with his syndicated followers, and a broadband of daily right-wing, fear ‘n hate talk radio. The spending channels were in place, the conduits ready for the contributors, many of them out of the public eye this time as “dark money” spending entered the fray, and the best corporate and private advertising and marketing money got ready for showtime.

The assembled cast was in place for the curtain to go up and then — who should walk on stage to applause but a “con man” as Senator Marco Rubio so succinctly put it. The Trump name and brand arrived with a quick announcement, a wave, a trip down an escalator in his NY tower, and voila, the rest is history. He went up, shocked the showrunners, and the rest of the cast of candidates exited stage left and right. The costly plans have been Trumped.

The story is best told as a mystery about ‘where the votes are.’   The public has voted and the Republican leaders, organizations and money are still shaking their heads in disbelief.  They are preparing for the Convention, those of them who are attending, with deep division as to how to prepare and how close they should come to the wrath of their soon-to-be-nominee. Since the Democrats are out fundraising them top to bottom, and the Trump fundraising operation doesn’t have the usual Republican givers and supporters turning on the money-machine, the rules of the game are being violated and the media, TV and radio pundits are wondering aloud “where’s the money”?

The last “self-financed” presidential campaign was 1992, another unorthodox fellow with a fortune and a mission to “Take Your Country Back. “Few remember that Ross Perot lifted this slogan, less its content, from Governor Jerry Brown’s “Take Back America” 1992 presidential campaign which sought, ahead of its time, to restore democracy. Campaign finance and lobbying reform, the top priorities the Brown platform put forward in its insurgent campaign, would rid politics of big money legalized by the Supreme Court’s 1976 Buckley v Valeo and subsequent decisions.  Brown’s surprisingly successful campaign that finished second to Clinton was a last hurrah for Democrat reformers of government. In 1992,  with help from Perot’s 19% in the general election, the self-described “Comeback Kid” Bill Clinton won with only 43% of the vote against a sitting Republican. The Clinton era brought into the Democratic Leadership Council, the ‘new’ Democratic party, and a promise to out-fundraise the Republicans. A money race ensued and every campaign season since the money game has ratcheted up.  Clinton embraced the newly legalized corruption as no previous Democratic presidential candidate has done.

Corruption scandals would follow Bill, but no convictions. Constant pre- and post-election scandals continued but Bill navigated as a political pro while making deals to turn the Democrats toward Republican- and big-money supported causes were at the top of his to-do lists. Central were trade treaties and globalization (with Ron Brown then Mickey Kantor stepping out in front), then financial services deregulation and the end of Glass-Steagall and Wall Street restrictions that had been in place since the Great Depression. Clinton delivered the goods and the deep pockets’ return on investment was more than ‘Rubinesque’, a grand bargain whose costs would catch up in the disasterous meltdown of 2007-2008. The lack of oversight of wild speculation may have been good for Goldman Sachs and Wall Street writ large, but the penalty was paid with hundreds of billions, trillions even, as the US and world economy went into crisis. Only a few economists pointed the finger back to the nineties at first, then the word got around that the center of a tangled network of conflicted interests was the ‘Comeback Kid‘ and he’s still preaching his line of a neoliberal Democratic party. Hillary is not far behind although she was challenged every step of the way in her 2016 presidential campaign.

The Bernie Sanders’ campaign evoked Jerry Brown’s in prioritizing the issue of money-in-politics. Hillary’s resemblance to Bill’s DLC embrace of ‘business oriented’  fundraising and policy connected strategy (although she speaks of reforms needed) is there for all to see, with billions raised through extensive conduits, including the Clinton Foundation. The cast has changed but the game hasn’t: Robert Rubin, Goldman Sachs; Ron Brown, who died under investigation; Harold Ickes, who was widely called the “director of the sanitation department” for his multiple roles over decades dealing with Bill Clinton’s entanglements and myriad money-in-politic scandels: it goes on and on.

Hillary Clinton has claimed she will be more ‘pragmatic‘ and realistic as she fended off the Sanders’ challenge and  now, as she pivots to the general election, she is looking to bring in those who fear Trump and those who want the ‘good times’ back. It is unrealistic, she says, to set our sights, as Sanders does and Brown did previously, on overturning the money-in-politics system. After all, the Democrats claim, what would “unilateral disarmament” get you but a Republican president and Republican policies. She neglects to mention that many, if not most, Republicans on Wall Street are more than happy to support her and another Clinton administration’s ‘business-friendly’. neoliberal policies. She also neglects to mention that, on foreign policy, many, if not most, Republican neoconservatives responsible for the interventionist wars in the Mid East over the past twenty five years support her intervenionist, ‘hard power’ policies. The Clintons do not give ‘Big Money’ and war supporters nightmares.

Republicans are learning an expensive lesson, that candidate Trump has the votes for nomination, as the Comeback Kid and his wife are outdoing the Republicans in the money game. While Trump used historic levels of free media (which profited the media companies with historic ratings and revenues) to run his campaign to the top of a Republican mosh of 17 candidates, Hillary Clinton and the Democrats are now using hundreds of millions in the bank to roll out their attack campaign — and it will be an onslaught. The money HRC has raised has a purpose. First goal, target Trump.

The Democrats general election  pivot will leave the issues of big money in politics and its emphasis in the Sanders campaign and move into political firefight mode. Trump will respond in course (he’s proud of his so-called “counter-punching”) and the news cycle slugfests will commence. Expect July through November to be a political war. The residue will be for the next administration to clean up and the result of months of attack politics will be more obstruction and dysfunction of Congress. Corrupt politics as a source of dysfunction will be lost in the mix.

So where does this end? Wise Democrats will learn a lesson, that there’s something to “the Sanders’ campaign message.” Most however will ignore any lingering Sanders’ movement. If Clinton is elected, the second Clinton era (“two for the price of one”) will commence its carried-forward mutually assured impasses and larger costs. If  Donald Trump stays on course like the masked bandit in Princess Bride and somehow manages to win via populist uprising, as with the Brexit vote by marshalling anger and revenge, then the ‘we told you so’ crowd will crow.

Can ‘the Donald’ be elected if he goes his own way and doesn’t court political powers that be? One guarantee is that it will be a wild ride, careening from one impulsive decision to another, one crisis to another, one perceived enemy to another. Could there be a ‘silver lining’ amidst all the gold-veneer he surrounds himself and his buildings with? Who knows? One day he speaks out against wasted billions spent on weapons the Pentagon doesn’t want, and he speaks of the costs of war and speaks up for the Veterans. The next day he promises to spend more than anyone ever has, with new nuclear weapons, to mount the largest army/navy/airforce/security systems the world has ever seen. One day he criticizes the Bush family, the Republican party and DC military-industrial establishment for a pointless $6 trillion dollar expanded Iraq war that has delivered turmoil and added millions of refugees across the region and Europe, who then turns around the next day to say, ‘bomb all of them again and kill all the militants and their families and out do them in cruelty and don’t let US law and international law stand in the way.’  One day he says Wall Street doesn’t control him, because he knows their ways better than anybody, he’s been there, done that. Now that he’s rich and doesn’t need them, or have to bow to them, so he will throw out the international trade deals and stop the ‘job-destruction that’s killing America’ and he will ‘Make America Great Again’.  His considerable huckster skills are drawing support across the political spectrum, a deep well of discontent. It’s like a Paddy Chayefsky “I’m not going to take this anymore!” world and Donald knows his audience.

Big business-big money/oligarchs/plutocrats who have prospered with a neoliberal/neoconservative agenda that Trump is now threatening have other thoughts. The establishment centers of power in the Democrat and Republican parties are wondering what’s next, what deeper forces are being called up, what’s on the horizon. Few question their own roles in creating the conditions that led to Vizzini’s Trump.

Is Hillary Clinton in tune with the temper of Trump times?  The Clintons’ lucrative fund-raising and influence peddling partnerships, their Wall Street connections, rumblings about payoffs to Clinton non-profits, their wide network of conflicted operatives, raise questions about their long embrace of the plutocracy which voters are rejecting in 2016, aside from her half of the 30% partisan Democratic voters.

Independents (who now constitute more than 40% of the US electorate) basically have said they’re independent for good reason. The swing voters could throw the election one way or another. The two third parties that are occasionally included in polls, the Libertarians and the Greens, could throw the elections as “spoilers” and the national poll numbers do change when these third parties are included. Whether they remain viable contenders with ballot access on most all state ballots remains a question, but if either reaches the Debate Commission imposed 15% polling threshold, then all bets are off. The ’92 Perot example provides more than enough fodder for thought on this front. Let a third-party candidate into the nationally televised presidential debate at the peril of the two-party candidates.

My bottom line, shared with, is it’s time to go to the flow of the issue — it’s time for a “modest proposal” — money-in-politics needs to become money-outta-politics.

Stop the masked bandits. It is conceivable. Start with the Demcratic convention. Change the rules. Those with conflicts of interest, who have been given contributions or financial support from the DNC or either presidential candidate, please step away from the first vote, recuse yourselves, demonstrate independence by applying ethical principles. In a democratic decision-making process upon which the existence of democracy depends, if you have been paid in any way for your vote, then recuse yourself from voting on ballot one and see if the convention becomes an open convention. The DNC’s Rules and Bylaws Committee, which would be responsible for enforcing such a rule, could signal a new era for the Democrats as “the clean party”, addressing the deep populist, independent, Democrat and Republican wish for a different type of politics.

Maybe this modest proposal is inconceivable.  Maybe it’s not. But the story of Vizzini is worth remembering. The times and voter turnout advise: pay attention to what’s really popular out there in America. Ignore the popular vote at your party’s peril.


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Tags: Populist Politics; 1992 Presidential Campaign; Brown & Perot, “Take Back America” v “Take Your Country Back”; Clinton, Corruption; Sanders Reform, Déjà vu; Trump “I’m self-financing, I can’t be bought like the other politicians”; Populism and Money-Out-of-Politics