President Clinton scored a major hit, according to reports in the news media, when he attended the recent G-7 conference in Tokyo. He talked to the Japanese people over the heads of their own government, discussing the price of consumer goods in the United States and the desirability of open markets. He could get away with what many would consider interference in Japanese politics—just before scheduled national elections—because the government of Japan had not fallen over the price of lettuce in grocery bins but over the price paid by Japanese corporations to influence members of the ruling party. Corruption, not cabbage, was on the minds of voters.
What Clinton could not do was tell his Japanese audiences about the democratic electoral system in the United States and how they could adapt it to address their problem of political corruption. He would have looked silly if he had focused on the price of winning a House or Senate seat in America. As for the role of corporations in corrupting our system—well, better to talk about open markets.
The average cost of winning a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1992 was $555,000, and the average cost of a winning Senate campaign exceeded $3.5 million. While those figures are staggering, they don't begin to tell the full story; many seats are not highly competitive because incumbents almost always win. Higher than average sums are spent when races are competitive. Herb Kohl spent more than $7 million in a competitive race in Wisconsin in 1988. California, Texas, and New York Senate races cost well over $15 million.
None of this will be solved by Bill Clinton's "bold" approach to campaign finance reform. Clinton is betting you won't read the fine print. When the Senate passed a publicity ploy called "reform," Clinton proclaimed that democracy was about to be restored. He talked about "fundamental" change in the flawed system. Could he be serious?
And could Common Cause, the perpetual champion of campaign-finance reform, be serious about protecting the public interest? Forget it. Fred Wertheimer, the head of Common Cause, is leading the applause for the Senate bill. Common Cause deserted the coalition advocating public financing of campaigns and sold out in favor of the Senate version. In so doing, it may have foreclosed the opportunity to have a serious national debate on real reform.
Let's recall how Clinton won the Democratic Presidential nomination and how he got enough money to win the Presidency. William Greider reminds us in his classic Who Will Tell the People that Clinton was the darling of the Democratic Leadership Council, usually referred to by the initials DLC. (During the Jerry Brown campaign, we referred to it as "Democrats for the Leisure Class.") As Greider points out, the DLC was the brainchild of Robert Strauss and other Washington lawyer-lobbyists for big business, and was funded by ARCO, the American Petroleum Institute, Dow Chemical, various insurance companies, and military contractors. The Strauss connection can be seen throughout.
I met Bob Strauss in 1973, after George McGovern lost his Presidential bid, when I was bidden to lunch with him and Edward Bennett Williams, another Washington power broker. I had no idea why I had been invited, but soon learned that I was being enlisted to help remove the "McGovernites" from the Democratic National Committee. Though McGovern had lost the election, his followers still controlled the DNC because they had mounted a dramatic grass-roots effort. Strauss argued that "these people simply had to be removed" if we were to save the Party. Both he and Williams deplored the absence of "realists" among them.
My response was that my wife and I had been early McGovern supporters, and "these people" slated for purging were us. For obvious reasons, it wasn't a long lunch.
As I watched the creation of the DLC, I couldn't help but remember how certain Strauss was that his types, the "realists," the "loyal Democrats," had to control the Party. Now they would set the agenda and help name the leading candidate for President through an organization that the insiders ran without any need for caucuses, conventions, or elections. Yes, the DLC was the perfect mechanism for big business to help Chuck Robb of Virginia, Sam Nunn of Georgia—or Bill Clinton. Money, ideas, speech writers, and contacts would be available to the "mainstream" candidate and if they chose carefully, he would become President.
What should we expect from the first DLC President? An early clue came when he appointed the DLC's handpicked Democratic national chairman, Ron Brown of the high-powered lobbying firm of Patton, Boggs & Blow, to be Secretary of Commerce. Next, the head of the Goldman Sachs investment- banking firm, Robert Rubin, was appointed to head economic policy. (Goldman was the top Wall Street contributor to the Clinton campaign.)
These appointments were comforting to those DLC-type business leaders who contributed more than $40 million in so-called soft money to the Clinton campaign and to the Democratic Party. Having a senior partner at the corporate law firm of O'Melvaney and Meyers oversee all Clinton appointments really put the corporate brass at rest.
Ellen Miller, director of the nonpartisan Citizens for Responsive Politics, points out that Clinton got nearly $5 million from the lawyer-lobbyists, and huge contributions from military, communication, health, and agribusiness interests. The finance, insurance, and real estate industries gave $6.8 million, according to Miller. Compared to these contributions, labor's campaign money was minuscule.
The likelihood that ARCO, ADM, Prudential, or Ron Brown, Bob Rubin, and Warren Christopher would argue that Clinton should remove the influence of money in our political process is as great as the likelihood that Bob Strauss would recant and argue for a return to grassroots control of Democratic politics. It won't happen; they like the system just the way it is. It works for them on every issue from capital gains and progressive income tax proposals to health care. Why mess with a good thing?
Let the people vote, let them endorse preselected candidates, let them come to the Inaugural Ball, but for God's sake, don't let them win.
So, is Clinton serious about real reform? Will he eliminate money from the process and jeopardize his financial base for re-election? Does he understand that the movement toward public financing of campaigns is about democracy? Will the Mets win the pennant?
The focus of the Clinton-Mitchell message is PACs—political-action committees. Everyone knows that PACs are evil, PACs are the problem, PACs are, indeed, the very essence of special interests. Politicians rail against PACs. Some refuse to take tainted PAC money in elections. Editorial writers demand an end to PACs and suggest that if we could eliminate PACs, our system would be cleansed.
Such hogwash! One can forgive the editorial writers because big business owns their papers and the anti-PAC line fits into the big business/DLC argument. Big business understands that working people, women, minorities, seniors can have influence with small contributions poured into PACs, but cannot even consider attending the major Democratic Party fund-raising affairs still called Jefferson-Jackson dinners. The affront to the memory of Andrew Jackson and Thomas Jefferson boggles my mind. Displaced rubber workers, out-of-work printers, laid-off auto workers can throw a five spot into the collection for a PAC but would never scrape together $100 or $500 for a dinner named after two democrats who worried about the impact of moneyed interests on government.
If PACs can be eliminated, big business and the wealthy simply take over the entire process. Only they can afford to buy elections at the $555,000 level for the House, $3.5 million for the Senate. Think about these figures from the Center for Responsive Politics: In 1992, total spending on Senate and House races topped $678 million. Did those dirty PACs dominate? You bet, if you read the editorials, but not if you look at the facts. PACs contributed $52 million of the $271 million raised for Senate races, while individual contributors gave $163 million. Fifty-two House candidates spent more than $1 million each on their own campaigns in 1992. How many blue-collar or white-collar workers do you know who can spend a million dollars on a campaign? How many people do you know who could take positions advocated in this magazine and raise $1 million? How about the $5 million needed to defeat an incumbent Senator?
In two Senate races, I raised a total of $1.5 million from Malibu to New York, Dallas to Seattle, and in every section of Wisconsin. At least half of the money came from those dirty PACs—labor unions, peace organizations, women's groups, seniors, and other progressives. Without that money, I would have been as relevant as Larry Agran and Gene McCarthy were in the 1992 Presidential campaign. They weren't invited to the debates even on public television; they weren't "serious" candidates because they didn't have serious money. Ross Perot was serious, and he was invited to the debates; he had the money.
Lurking behind the Clinton "reform" is the completion of Bob Strauss's dream: elimination or marginalization of PACs and those who contribute to them. Candidates will seek support from ARCO, not SEIU (the Service Employees International Union); from Dow, not NOW; from insurance companies, not the uninsured. In Bob Strauss's worst nightmare, the McGovernites are still out there, ready to storm the citadel of the Democratic Party. It isn't enough that the conservatives nominated Jimmy Carter over Morris Udall, Michael Dukakis over Paul Simon. No, there is always a danger that the people will speak. Let them vote, let them endorse preselected candidates, let them come to the Inaugural Ball, but for God's sake, don't let them win—don't even let them influence the game by pooling their money.
You will know when Bill Clinton is serious about democracy. On that day, he will tell the American people:
"My fellow Americans. We have one of the most corrupt political systems in the world. Money, not ideas, determines the outcome of elections. Corporations, with their agenda of greed and self-promotion, dominate the Congressional and the Presidential races. Only a fool would believe that a candidate can accept millions of dollars from the insurance industry and not feel its influence when he thinks about health care.
"If you believe the lobbyists in Washington arrange the fund-raisers because they want independent public servants fighting for the people, you may be too stupid to vote. Turn in your registration card. If you believe that a Senate dominated by millionaires is the answer to the needs of our staggering cities, our collapsing schools, and our regressive tax system, you haven't had dinner with a millionaire lately.
"No, my friends, this is not the America of Jefferson, Jackson, Roosevelt, and Eisenhower. This is the America the Kerner Commission warned us about twenty-five years ago. It is a society of rich and poor, of corporate domination of every piece of legislation debated in Congress. The corporations control our parties, select our candidates, determine the outcome of our elections, and establish the legislative and executive agendas.
"I am asking—no, demanding—that the Congress pass the Democracy Bill of 1994, which will provide complete public financing of our elections. Only then can we say to every young girl and boy that in America, everyone can grow up to be Governor, Senator, or President. Today, that is a lie.
"If Congress fails to enact that bill, I'm asking millions of you to come to Washington and stay here until it is passed. If it is not passed by the summer of 1996,1 will not seek, nor shall I accept, the nomination of my Party for President. I will run as an independent, and I pledge to you that I will accept no money from any source in my campaign. The day a President is elected without money from big business is the day we will have universal health care, a progressive tax system, job protection, and true democracy."
If we ever hear Bill Clinton deliver that speech, or anything like it, we'll be able to say goodbye to the DLC and the likes of Bob Strauss. We'll be able to say hello to democracy.