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Think Again: The Best Things in Life Are Free…

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As any self-respecting “insider” is aware, along with April Fools and cherry blossoms—once every four years, at least—come the numbers for campaign cash raised by would-be presidents. In many ways, it’s Washington insider politics at its most obscure—and infuriating. The numbers are all about creating and managing “expectations” for a quiescent media whose denizens tend to be suckers for anything that can be measured in units.

One would have a pretty difficult time coming up with why being good at raising cash from wealthy people is an important skill-set for a future president. Yet even raising this question is somehow considered bad manners during the campaign process.

Amazingly—to this observer anyway—reporters take little interest in how candidates inspire people just to give them money. It’s not as if people, particularly industry lobbyists, do this for everyone. And yet as The Washington Post’s Chris Cilizza argues “History has taught that where money comes from doesn’t matter all that much.” (I don’t know what “history” Clizza has in mind, but it sure as hell wasn’t in any course I studied getting my doctorate in the American kind.)

Yet this week’s news stories reflect Cilizza’s conventional wisdom. The Politico, the fledging political daily which seems to find itself amidst a journalistic contretemps every other week, leads off with “Money Figures Trouble For McCain, GOP,” which looks at how the less-than-expected fundraising of John McCain and the about-what-was-expected fundraising of Hillary Clinton undercut the campaign narratives…that the media created for them months ago:

“The first-quarter presidential fundraising reports offer several insights into the race, but perhaps the most intriguing are: John McCain is faltering as the perceived Republican front-runner, and Hillary Rodham Clinton’s campaign isn’t the juggernaut that her Democratic opponents feared.”

Even odder, or more difficult to decipher, are the reporters who write articles about fundraising numbers that include as explanation of why the fundraising numbers aren’t important. Most of the articles, including by The Politico’s Liz Sidoti’s from The Washington Post, include a paragraph like this one:

“As history has shown, an early advantage doesn’t always make for a party’s nominee or a White House winner…Republican Phil Gramm of Texas brought in $8.7 million in 1995, while Democrat Al Gore of Tennessee collected $8.9 million in 1999. Gramm dropped out of the race before New Hampshire’s 1996 primary, while Gore went on to win the 2000 Democratic nomination but lose the general election to George W. Bush in a contested outcome.”

Actually, he won, but leave that aside for a moment. Other examples worth remembering are John Edwards’ 2003 primary campaign, where he gathered more funding than any other democratic candidate, or Howard Dean’s record-setting netroots-fueled $40 million failure in Iowa. But the fact that fundraising isn’t the bellwether you’d expect it to be doesn’t stop the stories from being published.

Walter Shapiro, writing at Salon, also noted hat the money isn’t the only—or most—important thing for a presidential campaign:

“Despite the likely breathless tenor of dollar-derby coverage this week, money is not necessarily conclusive in presidential politics. In that sense, the race for the White House is like the other national pastime—baseball—where the New York Yankees have not been to the World Series since 2000, despite having a payroll 50 percent larger than that of their nearest rival, the Boston Red Sox. Mayer posits the ‘Parkinson’s Law of Campaigns,’ which he defines as ‘If you have money, you will spend it, whether it helps or not.’”

Writing in The L.A. Times, Michael Finnigan’s puts his finger on one of the most significant problems here:

“It was plain to see one recent morning why Mike Huckabee would bemoan the primacy of fame and money in presidential politics: Not a single TV crew trekked to the Pottawattamie County veterans hall where the Republican White House contender was making his pitch to a roomful of Iowans eating doughnuts and sipping coffee from foam cups…[A] dearth of money and fame poses huge obstacles for Huckabee and others struggling to break into the top tier of Republicans running for president.”

True, money and fame help a campaign. But remember Dean again—another small-state Governor who nobody knew, but whose message attracted notoriety and cash; ditto Jimmy Carter before him. Offering such candidates a fair hearing in the public sphere is part of the process—and it’s the media’s job to do that. Time magazine’s National Political Correspondent, Karen Tumulty, offered up some welcome self-accountability on her blog and realized that maybe the issues do matter.

“In this very accelerated political season with its very large field of candidates, the media seem to be getting ahead of the voters. What’s the hurry, 10 months before the first caucus, to winnow the field to a few candidates deemed viable—say, three at most from each party? With fewer moving parts, this very big story can assume a shape and a narrative that begins to look familiar and understandable. But in the process of writing that story, are we missing the real one?…still largely unaddressed, by the way, are any substantive differences that these candidates might have on actual issues.”

Over at Columbia Journalism Review Daily, Edward Colby references Tumutly’s blog and makes a case for real reporting:

“2008 is supposed to be the most ‘wide open’ presidential race Americans have seen in eighty years. This election is of crucial importance—the winner will have to deal with Iraq, Iran, North
Korea
, massive environmental issues, a staggering deficit, etc. But the country will only get the kind of national debate it desperately needs if the political press resists the time-honored temptation to put the horserace above all else.”

Hear hear! And by the way…what the heck ever happened to campaign finance reform? Remember, none of this fundraising would be necessary if Congress had been willing to pass that part of the McCain-Feingold legislation that would have required local stations to charge candidates their lowest rates for political commercials. Like every issue that deals with media companies flexing their power, that one got almost no coverage.

Former activist on this issue, Mark Schmitt, writes on TPMCafe that “the most fundamental problem to be addressed in American politics is the extent to which radical economic inequality reinforces and in turn is reinforced by inequality in the political system.” Schmitt wants campaign finance reformers to focus on empowering the public to be a more effective voice in politics rather than harping on corruption and private money. There’s a vigorous debate over there on the topic, but alas, it’s one that doesn’t seem to interest mainstream reporters.

As Mike Huckabee said in The L.A. Times, “If money and celebrity are the criteria to elect a president, then we can elect Paris Hilton.”

Funny, and true…but what were his quarterly numbers?

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow of the Center for American Progress and the author of six books. His popular blog, “Altercation,” has moved from MSNBC.com to Media Matters. The new URL is http://mediamatters.org/altercation/.

Research assistance: Tim Fernholz

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