Clipping the Presidential Price Tag

Yes, the Oval Office is for sale again, and Charles Lewis is back to tell the world who the buyers are.

| Mon Mar. 29, 2004 1:00 AM PST

"If [Charles] Lewis didn't exist, somebody would have to invent him," the Chicago Tribune once wrote. The Village Voice called him "the Paul Revere of our time." For 15 years, as founding director of the Center for Public Integrity , a Washington-based non-profit organization that researches and reports on public policy issues, Lewis has made a career of afflicting the comfortable, exposing the crooked, and tracing the ties of money and influence that bind Washington to corporate America.

In 1996, the Center produced what would be the first of a quadrennial book series, "The Buying of the President." The Buying of the President 2000 first revealed that Enron was George W. Bush's top career patron. The books dissect the major political parties, the presidential candidates, and the special interests behind them. Lewis says this year's version -- subtitled "Who's Really Bankrolling Bush and His Democratic Challengers - and What They Expect in Return" -- shows "how the process of choosing a president has moved from the voting booth to the auction block." It reveals, for example, how John Kerry has called—even sincerely—for campaign finance reform while dutifully pocketing big checks from his own career sponsors, notably Boston law firms and telecom companies.

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Inevitably, though, the dark star of the book is George W. Bush, a politician, says Lewis, who has "redefined the parameters of fundraising," creating in the process "the most awesome fundraising machine from corporate interests ever witnessed in politics anywhere on planet Earth." Lewis, who before founding CPI was an investigative reporter for ABC and CBS, stopped by the Motherjones.com office recently to talk about the tangled nexus of money and power in American politics.

MotherJones.com: You write a "Buying of the President" book every four years. What's changed since the last one?

Charles Lewis: The short answer is -- more money. We've seen the ability of a single candidate, George W. Bush, to triple or quadruple the previous levels of fundraising and bundling, collecting contributions in ways that we're never imagined in 1996, putting together scores of contributions from executives all maxing out on the same day. So some of the levels of sophistication and some of the levels of subterfuge and wink-wink coordination are pretty disturbing. We've always had bundling but we've seen new dimensions with George W. Bush.

We've also seen outside organizations proliferate. In '96, outside groups spent $150 million, $330 million in ‘98, $500 million in 2000. They're trying to influence politics so that a candidate has to have a coalition of party and outside money lined up together to win. That wasn't necessarily the case in 96. It's definitely the case today.

And, yes, in the same period of time we've seen campaign finance reform for the first time since Watergate, and the U.S. Supreme Court has said, in December, that money corrupts and that a millionaire does not have more free speech than ordinary citizens. Those are astonishing pronouncements from the Supreme Court.

When you look at it, a lot has happened and a lot hasn't happened. Money and power still reign supreme in American politics.

MJ.com: In "The Buying of the President" you say that George Bush has "redefined the parameters of fundraising." How so?

CL: None of the other candidates can match Bush. He raised $68 million the year before the election in 1999; he raised $131 million in 2003. These numbers overwhelm any politician in U.S. history including his father. Bush is in some other planetary solar system.

There's correspondence in the book from a roommate from Yale of George W. Bush's who works for the utility companies, and he says to them, "Please, please, send in your checks. We need to get credit." Why did they need credit? Well, I think I know why they needed credit. They're bundling and numbering the checks so that companies and industries can get credit; they want credit because they want to be remembered when the policies are given out, and they want to make sure they get some goodies, too.

I find numbering the checks to be one of the most unabashed, shameless, garish examples of shilling for public policy I've ever seen. There's a kind of catch-me-if-you-can arrogance. The whole idea of bundling violates the spirit of the post-Watergate reform laws. What's the point of having campaign limits if 67 executives on the same day all give the maximum contribution including their dog and their children? By numbering the checks there is a wink-wink thing going on where there is a shakedown of employees in companies to give money. And those companies are absolutely, without question, expecting results. And this is not illegal, sadly. In fact it's becoming the norm. The Kerry campaign is quite impressed and they're trying to emulate the system.

MJ.com: But Kerry can't compete if he doesn't raise a lot of cash, even though he's pushed for campaign finance reform. Do you have any sympathy for his predicament?

CL: I do. Both candidates are close to special interests. But there's one small difference: Bush has raised $300 million in his ten or twelve year political career. Kerry has raised $60 million, or a fifth of that, in twice as many years. That's useful context. Does that mean Kerry doesn't have ties to special interests? No, and they're even substantial, but they're nothing like Bush's.

The Democrats have a conundrum, they always have had. This is a gross overgeneralization but I'm going to make it anyway. The Democrats feel our pain and feel terrible about special interests and how dirty politics is, and they even go so far as to give speeches about cleaning up politics, and occasionally even support legislation to clean it up. Republicans, with the exception of folks like John McCain, are about as silent as you can be on the subject of cleaning up politics. They don't make a peep, for fear they'll be criticized for their hypocrisy. I don't know what's worse. They're both in up to their neck with the powers-that-be and are substantially beholden to special interests when they're writing public policy and making policy decisions.

But Kerry, if you talk to the McCains and the Feingolds, is regarded as a serious fellow who has supported reform, including the most pure and most controversial form of reform, public financing, for 20 years. And he's been there as one of the most loyal and most devoted supporters of McCain-Feingold at every turn. But he still has a hypocrisy issue.

MJ.com: What kind of political payoffs should we expect to see in a Kerry administration?

CL: If Kerry is elected president I think you'll have a binary track. You'll have him helping donors who supported him or at least giving substantial access and being influenced by the telecom interests and certain law firms that have supported him for years. They'll continue to be prominent and powerful in his administration. But you'll also have a more aggressive FEC and more aggressive moves in the reform arena. Once again, he'll be open to charges of hypocrisy. He'll be operating on two tracks simultaneously. To Kerry they're completely consistent, and he'll flatly assert, "No one can buy me," and "How dare you...?" But, I have to say -- you'd see both.

MJ.com: Democrats have reclaimed some ground, haven't they, through these outside groups "527" groups?

CL: Democrats are clearly trying to use outside groups to, as they say, level the playing field. Their thought is that they can get a few rich donors to write multimillion dollar checks, and if they can raise $50 million, $100 million, $200 million and they can saturate the airwaves. They're terrified that the president is sitting with $100 million cash on hand with no primary opponent, and so the Democrats alternative is to get this outside money.

That's not to say Republicans don't have outside groups and 527s. I think what you're going to see from all the hoopla about the Democrats spending and raising these kinds of sums of money is that the Republicans are going to enter an arms race and they'll probably try to match the Democrats with outside groups, so all of this means, once again, a process that is spiraling upward

MJ.com: How have the 527s changed the dynamics of the money chase?

CL: These groups have existed for years, spending money in the process to influence elections. The 527s, they we're active in 1996, too, but they we didn't call them 527s. That's a new term that came into effect in the middle of 2000.

But the involvement and aggressiveness of outside groups has only increased and accelerated. Now it's principally the 527s but, say, Progress for America -- a Republican-leaning group that wants to run anti-Democratic nominee ads, protecting the image of Bush between now and the election -- is a 501(c)(4), another type of nonprofit but more insidious in some ways than a 527, because 527 groups have some perfunctory disclosure requirements under federal law. 501c4 have looser disclosure requirements.

Ben Ginsburg, a lawyer for the Republican party who formed this organization, said they're completely independent from the Republican party, even though they had a party at the Willard Hotel last October, and Ken Mehlman of the Bush campaign and Karl Rove and others appeared. They're not independent, and they're going to spend millions, and we won't know who's giving the money.

The bottom line is, the jury is out. We don't know how many 527s are really trying to influence the political process.

MJ.com: Is it also true that candidates get a lot less free media than they used to, because campaign coverage has shrunk

CL: A lot of groups have done studies about the level of political news coverage of campaigns over the last ten years, and all have found that it is decreasing, so if I'm a candidate, the only way I'm going to get my message out is by buying ads. I can't count on free media coverage, because most of the media generally speaking doesn't cover my race, especially the lower races, the state legislative races, a lot of the congressional races. Good luck in a big metropolitan area getting anyone to cover that on the news. Most cities just don't cover it. So the only thing I can do is buy ads. If the media doesn't know who you are as a candidate, you're toast. The people who win are the media companies; the people who lose are the public because they're getting "educated" about these candidates in 30-second, 15-second bites that frankly are useless in terms of conveying real information of any substance.

MJ.com: And if candidates do get coverage, it's often because they've raised a lot of money -- and if they're behind in money, they don't get as much coverage, correct?

CL: Yes. In the presidential race, there's a primary that happens even before the real primary season starts. That's the "wealth primary." When there is no horse race -- that's to say, there's no caucuses or primaries, the media to create one by focusing inordinately on the money. You have political reporters who couldn't find the Federal Election Commission if their life depended on it, reading the FEC reports to see who's raising the most cash, not because they care about the insidious influence of what the price of power is and who's buying access and influence but of course trying to see who's got quote-unquote the most effective organization, which is a euphemism for having a lot of cash.

Every presidential election from 1975 through 2000, the candidate raising the most money the year before the election and eligible for matching funds has gotten the nomination of his party. December 31, midnight, you could tell who the next presidential nominee would be for each party. And it only stopped this time because the three leading candidates opted out of the matching-fund system, so no one was playing by the rules anymore.

MJ.com: Didn't the Dean candidacy change that dynamic?

CL: Dean had 340,000 donors raising $41 million, more than any other Democrat in U.S. history. The fact that he was ahead in the polls, and ahead in the cash, and ahead in the media coverage, and ahead in the momentum, and dropped like a stone before Iowa and New Hampshire is honestly an anomaly. It's very, very unusual and it's one of the most dramatic collapses of a frontrunner candidacy in contemporary politics.

MJ.com: But Dean was able to bypass some of the usual corporate sources of campaign money. Isn't that a positive development?

CL: Sure. If you can raise money, especially via the Internet, and minimize the personal schmooze factor where you've got to hang out with these donors who all want something, if you can have a larger number of contributions that are on the average much smaller, like Dean did, you've made the process cleaner. He already had some corporate money. You can't raise $40 million or $50 million in the U.S. without dipping into vested-interest money and bundling of that money.

But what Dean did -- his legacy, really -- is that he opened up the process to ordinary folks and revolutionized the way money is collected in American politics. That's very significant and it'll go down for years and years as an innovation.

MJ.com: So you buy this idea that the Internet has the potential to revolutionize the political process?

CL: It's already happening. Ordinary citizens can click a mouse and donate; that's going to democratize the process. Let's not forget that 96 percent of people did not contribute a penny to any politician at the federal level or a party. A check of $2,000 comes from 0.1 percent of people. Our politicians are sponsored by a narrow sliver of society. If those numbers change, and certainly if, say, 70 percent don't contribute but 30 percent do, and the contribution size is lower, and more people are participating, that may be hope. The good news is that ordinary folks, without an axe to grind, just wanting for idealistic reasons to support someone can do it via the Web. That's truly exciting.

But the prospect for mischief is so great. I mean, can companies get together and bundle using the Internet, can they figure out a way? The answer is yes, I'm afraid. If you've got Bush raising bundled money to the tune of $600.000 a day, it's going to be very hard. If he's doing that with fundraising events nationwide as he has been doing. If he's bundling like that without the Internet, who's to say he can't do that with the Internet? Before we jump up and down and start cutting the cake I want to make sure that we recognize the possibilities for mischief.

MJ.com: Has McCain-Feingold helped reduce the corruption in American politics?

CL: Look, McCain and Feingold and the other reformers were well intentioned. Their law is very significant. But the greatest significance, in the long run, and for history, may not be the actual wording of the McCain-Feingold law. It may be that the Supreme Court said that money corrupts and that a millionaire doesn't have more free speech than an ordinary citizen.

If you talk to McCain and Feingold as we did for this book, they feel emboldened and to them their law is merely a first step -- ending soft money contributions to the parties and putting some restrictions on the money and activities and spending of these outside groups was only a first step. Next year, in 2005, they would like to shut down or radically revamp the toothless and embarrassingly weak FEC. They would like to revamp the presidential matching funds system that's clearly broken when you have the leading candidates opting out. They have a lot of plans and they feel they just got a giant green light from the Supreme Court.

The law has had very little influence on the presidential race, because that's hard money. It's apples and oranges. Still, if you talk to McCain and Feingold, they believe it is making the ads less negative, because now candidates have to take responsibility for their ads.

Meanwhile the battle goes on; it never ends. In our nasty, polarized political process, the most divided nation since the 1880s, where we have the Hatfields and the McCoys trying to strangle each other --the 49 percent nation -- no battle is ever over.

MJ.com: In "The Buying of the President," you write that there's been a coarsening of public life. What do you mean by that?

CL: One of the most moving parts of the book to me personally was the McCain South Carolina section, where you had outside groups coming out of nowhere -- entirely coincidentally of course -- helping George W. Bush, all acting in concert but not being in any way coordinated, of course. They did phone banks, leaflet drops, radio ads and other things saying that Mrs. McCain was a drug addict. They said that John McCain had been brainwashed in North Vietnam. They said that John McCain had an illegitimate black child with a prostitute. They just spread the most scurrilous, outrageously irresponsible rumors and innuendo of the most nasty, personal nature, and McCain talked pretty freely to me about what it was like. But the thing that blew him away wasn't what happened to him, but what happened to Max Cleland in 2002, where a sitting U.S. senator who, as McCain put it, left three limbs on the battlefield in Vietnam, had his image put up next to Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein and had his patriotism questioned.

There is a whole lot of subterfuge -- the subterfuge, I think, offends me more than anything. Politics in general has always been a nasty business but it's gotten nastier with the polarized landscape we live in today. What bothered me most about the McCain story, as an investigative reporter, was that the facts don't matter. Here was a candidate, George W. Bush, who had never given a political reform speech in his life, he's running ads calling himself "the reformer with results," even though there was no basis in fact. McCain, who had devoted the last five to seven years of his life to reform, and had alienated a good number of his Republican brethren in the U.S. Senate, and when the exit polls were done in South Carolina after saturation advertising by the Bush campaign, most voters said that the real reformer was Bush, not McCain. That is just unbelievable. That's amazing. That's not true. One had a record; one had no record.

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