This is the first round of party conventions since the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision. Unfortunately, early reports suggest just how low the parties will go to stay competitive in the era of unlimited campaign money, and we can expect a lot more shameless pandering to mega-donors and corporations with the means to pour cash into the parties' favorite Super PACs and dark money non-profits.
Both parties will be doing their best to hide this fundraising fun behind the scenes, in part by putting their own reformers front and center. On the Republican side, there's John McCain, co-author of the Bipartisan Campaign Finance Act of 2002, who headlined Wednesday night at the convention. Then the Democrats have Massachusetts Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren who, along with her rival, Senator Scott Brown, has made a pact to take voluntary penalties if her campaign accepts aid from Super PACs and other outside groups.
If the parties succeed, they'll be able to obscure their fundraising machines from the general public, who will be sitting at home watching the conventions on their TVs. They know that their members -- along with most of the nation -- are sick of the fundraising imperative and particularly of the flood of oft negative, frequently misleading, secretly-funded campaign advertising that it creates.
The truth is that the average voter, whom the conventions are desperately attempting to fire up, would probably be more interested in hearing their leaders' plans for outlawing Super PACs (a move supported by 7 out of 10 Americans) and overturning Citizens United (supported by 62 percent). But the likelihood of getting their voices heard on this issue is slim -- they can't dole out $10,000+ checks or dip into corporate treasuries.
So reformers will be paraded around on the big stage and the parties will talk about people power and democracy, while the backstage will be a fundraising free-for-all.
The Democrats, for all their anti-big money rhetoric (and the legitimate efforts of some elected officials to ward off the big money wave), will be working hard to close the outside money gap between themselves and the GOP.
The DNC's "People's Convention" gives the noble appearance of shirking corporate funds, but this promise is undermined by the acceptance of corporate cash through thinly-veiled in-kind contributions, loans, and individual executive gifts, most notably from Duke Energy, whose "non-contributions" to the DNC will easily surpass $10 million. Then there's the biggest event of the week: the Super-O-Rama, the giant convention-week effort to woo big donors for three Democrat-friendly Super PACs.
Meanwhile, the Republicans, who so far are benefitting the most from the bursting of the money dam, will have their own ways to ensure that their affiliated Super PACs and non-profits rake it in. Somewhere up in the skybox seats, the party elite will be enjoying the festivities with top donors. Bundlers who have committed to raising $250,000 or more will have access to special VIP events where they can mingle with party leaders and enjoy performances by famous musicians. Then late in the week, Super PAC Americans for Prosperity will be holding a reception to honor two mega-donors, David Koch and Art Pope. Pope is a long-time supporter of the party who has given over $28 million through his family foundation to conservative think tanks. Meanwhile, the Koch family's network of organizations plans to spend a whopping $400 million on this election.
The sad truth is that both parties are so focused on raising enough cash to win in a post-Citizens United world that they're unlikely to take a serious look at ways to change the playing field.
If the parties want to really protect democracy, here are the measures that should be added to the party platforms:
1. A constitutional amendment reaffirming that "we the people" have the right to democratically enact content-neutral limitations on campaign contributions and spending by individuals and corporations on elections in order to promote political equality. Ultimately, we can only get out of our current judicial rut by amending the Constitution to clarify to the Supreme Court that the First Amendment was never meant to be used as a tool for special interests to co-opt our democracy. A party that's serious about reform must be serious about an amendment.
2. Grassroots donor incentives. Anti-reformers like to say that Americans spend more money on potato chips than political campaigns. It's not the amount of money that's the problem, it's the limited sources. In fact, an influx of small donor dollars could balance out the millions coming from special interests. We can promote these contributions by providing citizens with tax credits and vouchers for donations and by matching the small gifts with clean public funds.
3. Disclosure -- Require disclosure of all funds spent to influence federal elections and the donors behind these funds. A no-brainer.
4. Non-Coordination -- Tighten rules on coordination. Current rules prohibiting coordination between Super PACs and candidates are riddled with loopholes. The Federal Election Commission should issue stronger regulations that establish legitimate separation between candidates and Super PACs.
This post is part of the HuffPost Shadow Conventions 2012, a series spotlighting three issues that are not being discussed at the national GOP and Democratic conventions: The Drug War, Poverty in America, and Money in Politics.
HuffPost Live will be taking a comprehensive look at the corrupting influence of money on our politics August 29th and September 5th from 12-4 pm ET and 6-10 pm ET. Click here to check it out -- and join the conversation.
Follow Blair Bowie on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@blairbowie