- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 31, 2007

There should be a new spelling of the word describing the act of winning the right to serve in public office, most especially the presidency of the United States. Instead of “e-l-e-c-t-i-o-n,” it is now “m-o-n-e-y.” One is moneyed to the office by buying enough votes. One must spend nearly every waking hour seeking enough funds to be moneyed.

How many dollars will be raised and spent to be moneyed in the current race for the presidential nomination and the later for the actual job? That would be well in excess of $1 billion, and if key states continue to fight over holding the earliest primary, that’s a very conservative estimate. California just upped the ante by moving its primary to an earlier date, trying to recapture the days when it was really important in the presidential nominating process.

One Democratic candidate who only a few weeks before had told reporters that he thought he had a calling for the office, already has dropped out because he couldn’t call enough donors to be moneyed. That’s significant because the candidate was Tom Vilsack, the former governor of Iowa, where the caucus is the first important hurdle of the primary season. One would have thought he might have enough resonance with voters there to raise enough to be a factor, but apparently not.

Keeping the cash flowing is so crucial that even the worst kind of news can’t be allowed to interrupt the treasure hunt. For instance, former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, who seems to have been in perpetual presidential campaign mode for longer than most of us can remember, and his courageous wife announced that she had incurable cancer and then went off to separate fund-raisers. In fact, the announcement of her medical predicament has generated a sharp increase in Mr. Edward’s Internet contributions. More than 5,000 sympathetic souls pledged above a half-million dollars in the five days after the Edwards’ March 22 announcement of her illness.

How long Mr. Edwards, who ranks third in the pre-primary polls, will stay in the race is the subject of much speculation with a new Gallup poll showing that at least 33 percent of those surveyed felt he eventually would have to drop out. If that percentage increases or there is further bad news from her physicians, the funds to support him would decline rapidly. He is certainly able to finance some of his campaign himself, having made millions as one of the nation’s leading personal injury lawyers.

The leaders in the drive for the Democratic nomination, of course, are Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama. Mrs. Clinton is probably the all-time big bucks champion, raising several times more than her husband, former President Bill Clinton, at this stage in the campaign. Each of these candidates can be expected to dispose of more than $100 million before the nomination is decided and one can only guess at how much more between the nominating convention and the November 2008, balloting day.

Republican candidates like former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, Sen. John McCain of Arizona and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney already have raised $10 million each. If former Sen. Fred Thompson enters the race, he faces a daunting financial task. The importance of money has been increased enormously by the front-loading of the system. In reality, the decision about who will represent each party at the top of the ticket will be obvious only two months into next year.

Is this nuts? Sure it is. What’s more, it is a huge distortion of the democratic process that has gotten severely worse despite the efforts of Congress to slow it down by limiting contributions. There has been no limit on spending, however, and the McCain-Feingold Act is full of enough loopholes to be bothersome but not prohibitive. Voters should begin to ask themselves where all this money goes and who gets it. For the most part one word will answer that: Media. Not just the television and radio stations, whose profit margins climb dramatically every election year, but also the consultants and agencies that create and place the commercials.

I’m reminded of an early 20th century memo from the pioneer publisher E.W. Scripps that hangs on my office wall. It prohibits the taint of any political advertising in his newspapers. Right on.

Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.

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