Show Me The Money . . . ?

05/25/2011 12:15 pm ET

The following piece was produced by the Huffington Post's OffTheBus.

If one were to notice that most times, its the political with the deepest campaign pockets who end up winning the elections ( voter fraud not withstanding), then one might tend to believe that money is the one thing that would give Independent presidential candidates and "underdog" major party candidates a better chance of winning. After all, money has seemingly always been a part of politics.

Yet if one were to ask any jaded, apathetic, U.S. citizen (who may or may not vote) what is the one major factor for the cause of perpetual and rampant political corruption, they may say, "Money."

Ask many Independent or underdog candidates what may be their biggest obstacle to winning and they might not only mention the problem of raising money, which dovetails into the problems of visibility, mainstream media marginalizing, they may decry the fact that raising money is necessary at all.

Yes, lots of green would undoubtedly help many third party candidates (as well as "second tier" Democratic and Republican candidates), get their names on each state ballot and precious tv air time in the form of nasty, (and yet upon the mass media saturated, shortened attention span society, apparently quite effective) thirty second mudslinging contests that have sadly become a cornerstone of U.S. political campaigning.

But did I say lots? No, I meant lots and lots of green. The truth is, as supportive as I and many other pure Independents want to be, we simply do not have the millions of dollars to contribute to anyone's campaign, third party or not. And as you all well know, the amount of presidential campaign finances needed to run for office has risen steadily, paralleling the skyrocketing cost of financing most major motion picture films. The only people who have that kind of money are corporations a.k.a., Big Business whether that business be petroleum, coal/copper/gold/mineral mining, logging, insurance, pharmaceutical banking, agriculture, automotive, textile, cattle, or the many others. However, pure Independents (those that vote for truly Independent candidates, as opposed to "leaners" who end up supporting either the Democrats or the Republicans) and their third party candidates (as well as some of the underdog candidates from the two dominating parties) do not accept money from Big Business on principle. Again, many feel that the need for tons of money to win an election is the very thing that must change if they are to have a fair shot.

Hence we have the never ending debate over campaign finance reform. Reform laws have been passed throughout the last century, from the Tillman Act (1907), prohibiting corporations and nationally chartered interstate banks from making direct financial contributions to federal candidates, to the Federal Corrupt Practices Act (1925), creating general contribution limits, to the Hatch Act (1939), setting a limit to any political party's campaign expenditures and individual campaign contributions, to the Smith-Connally Act (1943) and the Taft-Hartley Act (1947), which both extended the corporate ban on campaign contributions to labor unions, to the Federal Election Campaign Act (1971), requiring full disclosure of campaign finance, to the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, also known as the McCain-Feingold Bill, eliminating indirect, "soft money" campaign contributions from outside organizations , doubling the limit of "hard money" campaign contributions, and banning the use of contributions by non-party organizations in "electioneering communications" (read: mud slinging ads)

What has changed with all of this legislation? I and many others would say not much except that it may be even harder for Independent candidates and their supporters to compete. Those who want radical reform believe that if all campaign money came from a public fund, and all candidates received the same amount, there would be no need for candidates to accept money (and all the strings attached to it) from special interest groups, lobbyists, and corporations. There would be no need for already elected officials to spend the majority of their terms campaigning and raising money for their next term. If we to go a step further and give all candidates equal access to the media via debates televised on public access television, then U.S. citizens may actually be exposed to truly original ideas offered up people they may otherwise not even know about.

And that's what we're talking about here; giving all candidates equal exposure to voters. Create a level playing field. Of course this has to happen through legislation but the very people who would help pass such legislation can't get into office because they don't have the money to compete against those who take money from corporate/special interest entities equally as invested in maintaining the status quo as the candidates who accept their donations. Of course that is not the only reason. Lack of public will to elect representatives who want to create radical reform, I.e.: enacting legislation requiring that candidates running for Congress share public financing and equal media access, helps ensures that those presently possessing the power to vote themselves raises won't be making any of those changes anytime while they're in office.

Yet another reason we may not be seeing change via effective campaign finance reform is because, according to UC Berkeley Political Science Assistant Professor David Karol, "The Supreme Court has made the reformer's job harder." In citing the case of Buckley vs. Valeo (1979) , where Senator James L. Buckley of New York and other plaintiffs claimed that a number of provisions in the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 were unconstitutional, Karol states, "the ruling was that money was to be treated as free speech. So you could not restrict total spending in a campaign. Indirect speech, however, could still be regulated, such as the limitation on campaign contributions."

But then eventually, explains Karol, the effectiveness of regulating campaign contributions went out the window as well, thanks in large part to the birth of the internet.

With Federal Funding" states Karol, "if you raised a certain amount of money, the government would match it, but you had a per state limit ($200,000 plus cost of living adjustment [COLA], or 1.06 x Voter Age Population [VAP], whichever is greater) and over all limit (called the national spending limit, which is 10 million plus COLA.) Howard Dean raised so much money on the web, he didn't take Federal Funding. The Democrats realized there would be no penalty for going over the Federal Funding Spending Limits. Now, the only people who take Federal Funding are those who can't raise a lot of money."

Karol believes, like UCLA Political Science Assistant Professor Matthew Baum (interviewed in my blog, The Search for the Independent), that even if all the money were taken out of politics tomorrow, another factor that would hamstring second tier/independent/third party candidates is the set up of the system itself.

"In other countries such as Germany, France, Israel, and Holland that have parliamentary systems, if you get 15% of the vote, you get a seat. You will often see five to ten different parties in one parliament. Here, we have the Electoral College. Each state is 'winner takes all.' In presidential elections we don't have a run off election if any candidate gets 50% of the vote. There's no second round. Our system does not allow for that."

"We can change this," he adds, "but there are institutional factors preventing change from taking place." By this, Karol refers to lack of public will (again!) and the entrenchment of those two parties who do not want to see any other parties seated at the Big Table.

But the third party/independent/underdogs are still trying, even if it may feel like a losing battle. Take the upcoming (are now past, depending on when this gets published) special election in Massachusetts' district, where registered Independents number at 52%. From the media coverage, and number of candidates present at debates, you'd think the only people running are Republican Jim Ogonowski and Democrat Niki Tsongas. But that is not the case.

Independent candidate Kurt Hayes, a former IBM sales rep, told the Eagle Tribune, "My biggest challenge is to find ways to get people to know who I am. People go from not knowing who I am to wanting to vote for me in a few minutes." I assume that last statement refers to the fact that if voters were actually exposed to other candidates like Hayes and the other two Independents, former brick layer and progressive, Patrick Murphy, and conservative Constitution candidate Kevin Thomas, they might actually vote for them. And as different as they may imagine themselves to be, I imagine that Ogonowski and Tsongas surely agree that this is something they do not want.

Why are they so scared of letting the Independent candidates debate them?

Simple. Original ideas can be revolutionary, and when heard by virgin ears, can blossom into radical movements that shape and change the course of a whole society. In other words, original ideas are dangerous (to those who do not have them) and they, along with the candidates who espouse them, must not be allowed to see the light of day.

This was why in the extraordinary documentary film An Unreasonable Man, Ralph Nader is seen being threatened in 2000 with the possibility of arrest by a state trooper because he wanted to attend a Gore/Bush debate using a valid ticket of admittance. Not only did they ("they" being the Democratic and Republican debate chairpersons responsible for the debates) not let him debate with Bush and Gore, they were going to violate his rights to free speech and free assembly.

Time Warner refused to set up Democratic debates between Clinton and Democrat Jonathan Tasini in the '06 Senate primaries. Why? Tasini supposedly had not raised enough money.

Howie Hawkins, the Green Party candidate for the New York Senate seat in '06, was not allowed to debate Hillary Clinton and Republican John Spencer. Why? Because Clinton and Spencer were going to boycott the debate, held at the University of Rochester, if he was. Hawkins was expelled from the campus when he tried to hand out statements outside the debate hall protesting his exclusion.

Dennis Kucinich, an underdog Democratic candidate (whom the author voted for in the '04 primaries,) was excluded from two Democratic presidential candidate events: a Steak Fry in Indianola, Iowa, and a Democratic Presidential Forum in Davenport. Why? The official reason was that his poll numbers were insufficiently low there. However, Joe Biden and Chris Dodd had lower numbers than Kucinich and they were invited. So why the snub to Kucinich? Could it be that the three most popular kids in school (Clinton, Obama, and Edwards) and their supporters are actually scared that if more people heard Kucinich speak, those poll numbers wouldn't stay low for very long?

After a one particular debate, Edwards, Clinton, and Obama were caught grumbling as to why these debates Clinton has a lead in just about every state, has raised more money than anyone (like I said, corporations have lots of green, which comes with a price) and yet still can't stand the thought of having to debate her opponents, as she proved in '06 against Hawkins. She may no doubt be wondering why these debates couldn't simply be turned into elimination rounds to weed out the competition (which she factually may have griped about in a recent post-debate moment, unknowingly into a still-turned-on microphone.) She's like the hare who is much faster than the tortoise, but nevertheless feels compelled to sway the outcome even further in her favor.

Am I calling Hillary Clinton a cheater?

Worse. I am calling her a coward.

I am calling her, along with all Democrats and Republicans like her, a coward for not playing fair. For not fighting fair. For not being brave enough to debate others whose ideas differ so much from her own, tired "I'll-do-pretty-much-what-the-Republicans-have-been-doing-only-I-think-I-could-do-it-better" rhetoric, that if voters actually heard these different ideas and viewpoints, they may actually change their minds about her and her other "top tier" opponents.