THE BLOG

Elections not Auctions: What Was Really Missing From Last Night's Debate

10/04/2012 04:03 pm ET | Updated Dec 04, 2012
  • Ian Bassin Former Associate Counsel to President Obama

If your opponent has been practicing all week to hit your fastball out of the park, don't throw him any fastballs. That could explain the Obama strategy in last night's debate on why Bain Capital, "47 percent" and Romney's missing tax returns never made it in: the Obama camp knew Romney had zinger responses prepared for each of those and didn't want to give him a chance to use them.

But while it may explain why the debate lacked that political red meat, there's no good explanation as to why this debate on domestic policy failed to feature one of the biggest challenges facing our nation: the capture of our government by a wealthy elite. In leaving this issue unaddressed, the candidates -- and especially the moderator Jim Lehrer -- did us all a disservice. So let's discuss it here.

By Nov. 6, more than $6 billion will have been spent trying to influence the outcome of the 2012 elections. One man alone, Las Vegas Casino magnate Sheldon Adelson has pledged to spend upwards of $100 million to help Mitt Romney defeat Barack Obama. And Adelson didn't get rich by being a dumb investor. He stands to make $2 billion back in tax benefits if Romney is elected.

Put simply, we don't have elections, we have auctions. While small donors may still contribute out of a desire to steer policy towards the public interest, the big kahunas often expect to get something tangible back in return. This is true of both parties. While Mitt Romney has raked in millions from Wall Street donors looking to roll back parts of Dodd-Frank and protect their favorable tax treatment, The New York Times reported this week that lawyers profiting off Obama Administration policies towards whistleblowers are donating heavily to his campaign. In other words, contrary to the partisanship that has attached to this issue in the last few years, this isn't a Democratic problem or a Republican problem, it's an American problem.

And until we cure this cancer, we won't be able to address the great issues of our time. We have no hope of dealing with climate change if the fossil fuel industries can buy protection in Congress. We'll be at risk of another financial meltdown if the Wall Street banks continue to use legal bribery to avert reform. And as foreign policy experts will lament if you ask them, we're not going to be able to deal with the global strategic challenges of the 21st century so long as our lawmakers are spending all their time at dinner with defense lobbyists.

The problem isn't new. But it's grown to the kind of extreme proportions that in earlier eras have outraged Americans into enacting reforms. From Teddy Roosevelt cracking down on corporate spending on politics in 1907, to major campaign finance reforms in the wake of Watergate, to the McCain-Feingold bipartisan partnership of 2002, Congress has responded to prior scandals with legislative remedies.

So surely the 2012 Super PAC debacle will follow the old formula and lead to the necessary reforms? Wrong. The uber-conservative Supreme Court has robbed Congress of many of the tools it would need to sufficiently address the problem. And the Roberts Court's repeated hostility to campaign finance legislation suggests it won't look favorably on any future reforms.

But all is not lost. The founders equipped us with a tool for precisely this type of situation: a constitutional amendment designed to give us back the power to reduce the influence of money in politics. Amendments shouldn't be taken lightly. Tinkering with our founding document is a dangerous business, especially at a time when our Congress is as dysfunctional as ever. But there are powerful reasons why pushing for one is an important task.

First, there are few more powerful causes to organize around in American politics outside of elections than a constitutional amendment. Amendment struggles captivate media and citizens alike far more than your typical legislative battle and help to signal to legislators, executives and the judiciary what We The People think our constitutional values should be.

Second, amendments often shape policy even when they're never ratified by serving as the fulcrum for political movements. The last three serious attempts -- the Balanced Budget Amendment, the Federal Marriage Amendment and the Equal Rights Amendment all helped auger in other measures: the BBA forced Democrats into spending cuts, the FMA forced President Clinton to sign the Defense of Marriage Act, and the ERA led the Supreme Court to adopt greater protections against sex-based discrimination.

Lastly, it's going to take a herculean effort to enact any reforms over the opposition of mega-moneyed interests who will stop at nothing to protect the advantages bestowed on them by the current system. Given the real danger that the Supreme Court could invalidate any victories we achieve, it's too risky to put all our eggs in a legislative basket. A constitutional argument must go hand in hand with any other movement for reform.

This is emphatically not to say we should be focusing on a constitutional amendment alone. Indeed, an amendment only gives us the space to enact other needed reforms. That's why tackling this problem is going to require an all-of-the-above approach in which things like public financing, matching fund programs, tax credits to incentivize wider participation in who funds elections, and more transparency are all worthy reforms. But only by invoking the constitution too can we elevate this debate to its rightful level as one that strikes at the core of what kind of government we deserve.

Because it was precisely to us that Benjamin Franklin was speaking when he responded to a question upon leaving the constitutional convention in Philadelphia about what he and his fellow framers had wrought: "A Republic," he famously replied, "If you can keep it." At the next debate, Americans should demand the moderator ask both candidates how, in light of the billions currently corrupting our system, they plan to do that.