09/18/2012 06:24 pm ET Updated Nov 18, 2012

A Peek Into the Hidden, Big Money Campaign

Pundits from across the political spectrum, along no doubt with millions of everyday citizens, are aghast at Mitt Romney's assertion that nearly half of Americans are "victims" who've become dependent on government.

But what struck me most about Romney's remarks was the place he delivered them, a private dinner with big-dollar donors -- $50,000 and above -- at the home of an equity fund manager in Boca Raton, Fl.

The Romney incident and its venue are reminders that thanks to the power of big money, almost every campaign is really at least two campaigns.

The first campaign, the one most of us see, is waged in the open. The candidate speaks at public events, where press coverage is welcome; he/she participates in debates with the opposition, and the campaign organization floods the airwaves with commercials ending with the familiar tagline -- "I'm Joe Officeseeker and I approved this message."

Romney's Boca Raton video is part of the second campaign, usually carefully shielded from public view. It's the one in which the candidate courts wealthy contributors, many of whom remain anonymous to the public and whose donations buy them exclusive access, the right to hear what the candidate REALLY thinks about the issues and -- most important -- what he/she is willing to deliver in return for all those donations.

Democrats are gloating at what Romney admits were "inelegantly stated" remarks in Boca Raton, conveniently forgetting how Barack Obama was caught in a similar moment of candor during the 2008 campaign. Then, in a private session with some of his big dollar donors, the president-to-be inelegantly complained of his difficulty in winning over voters "clinging to their guns and religion."

It's understood in a democracy that candidates are likely to bend the truth a bit -- or sometimes hide it completely -- to give an audience what they think it wants to hear. But the Romney incident, like the Obama flap of 2008, is a reminder that in today's campaigns big donors become sort of super-citizens; their money buys special access and the unvarnished opinions of candidates and later yields special favors when those candidates become officeholders.