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Great feedback to my last post – thanks!  What I think the comments reveal is that this topic really begs the question of campaign finance reform generally.  Many of you suggest that caps on total spending or public financing might be the more important places to direct our attention.  We need to find a way to select good candidates from the population – and I am skeptical that looking to their previous income is a good proxy for how good a public servant they will be.  (Or maybe I’m uncomfortable with the negative inference there – I’m not ready to say people who can’t afford to self-finance wouldn’t be good public servants). 

But I guess what underlies this topic is my hunch that money influences not only who chooses to run for office and who wins but also significantly how they act once they get in positions of power.  Maybe that thought is not particularly revolutionary, but perhaps it does structure the way we can think about what matters in campaign finance reform debates – and in accusations that self-financers are bad for politics.   

My response

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To the critics saying things like the below, I say, you may be right.  These self-financers have a luxury that isn’t available to most of the rest of this country.  Plastering faces on billboards, buying countless radio spots and TV ads shouldn’t replace real debate on the issues.  Elected officials shouldn’t be out of touch – they should know and understand the struggles real people are facing.  I think we can all agree on that.

The question is, how do we get there?  And I don’t think self-financing threatens democracy given the way campaign financing works now.  Under the current financing system in the US, self-financed candidates offer voters a louder voice in their government and make democracy work the way it was supposed to.  They answer to voters, not to donors.

If we’re going to talk in terms of “buying seats”, the truth is, somebody “buys” every seat.  Big oil, trial lawyers – you name the interest group.  And so given that’s the way our system works today, if it’s up to me, I’d rather a candidate buy her independence from big moneyed interests by financing the campaign herself and be accountable to voters.

A first step toward empathic argument

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The theme of this course has been on empathic argument.  The central idea of this rhetorical form is that understanding those whom you are arguing against – their positions, their motivations, their pain points as well as their goals – empowers you to make a more persuasive and compelling argument for your own position.

In that vein, here is my best effort at understanding some of the strongest arguments I have heard in opposition to self-financed candidates.

  • Self-financed candidates buy your vote – “He bought his seat in the Senate.”

Self-financed candidates smear themselves across billboards, sides of buses, on your television, across your newspaper, popping up on internet sites, in your inbox – their budgets grow by the day as they race for your attention.  This crowds out debate from the proper issues.

  • They buy your attention and today attention means election – “Something’s wrong with the system if all it takes is $60M to get public office.”

Voters are manipulated by the sheer volume of ads they see.  With community life increasingly fragmented, as people spend more time at work and less engaged in community organizations and other meeting places for spontaneous discussion, this kind of plastering a campaign slogan has more penetration, and less potential for backlash.

  • They sabotage the system, exerting too much influence into whose voice gets heard – “What happened to debating the issues?”

With virtually unlimited advertising budgets, self-financed candidates drive up the cost of running for office to such a degree that the game becomes who can raise money more effectively to compete, instead of a real face-off on issues.  By throwing their money into the race, they force others to do the same, drawing either a bunch of millionaires into political office or making fundraising the key competitive element in campaigning for elected office.  Worse, they could push worthy contenders out of political office, and create a future situation where everyone in office is wealthy.  Put bluntly, as Brad Johnson, a onetime adviser to Mario M. Cuomo when he was governor of New York, did in this article ”We will become a nation of two parties: old money and new money.’”

  • Self-financed candidates are of the elite and not good representatives of normal people

The elite – those who can afford to finance a campaign for public office from their own pockets – are not good representatives of average people.  If we promote this kind of campaign, we are essentially supporting a plutocracy where only people of certain wealth can successfully run for office.  This is a big problem – and not only because of their money.  These candidates also have different values.  Their willingness to buy a vote shows these values; they think they are above the system and can throw their weight around.  That’s not who we should put in office.  This sentiment was captured in slogans like “Wall Street values, not Main Street values” during the Senate campaign in NJ in 2000.

Why do I care?

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Well, for a couple reasons:

Before I came to grad school, I worked in the Senate for Jon Corzine, now Governor of NJ.  When I told people I worked for him, the responses I heard nearly always included “oh, the guy who bought his seat, right?”.  Getting that question all the time got the wheels turning in my head – how do I feel about wealthy individuals paying for their campaign out of their pocket?

So I’ll skip to the punchline: given the way the money system in U.S. politics currently works, I think self-financed candidates buy accountability to voters instead of donors.  And that’s a good thing.  It’s closer to how the ideal democracy should work.

Welcome!

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Hello.  I’m Anne Hubert, a 3rd year in Harvard’s JD-MBA program.  Thanks for visiting this blog, my final project for Harvard Law School‘s course, CyberOne: Law in the Court of Public Opinion.

Here you will find some of my thoughts about why candidates for political office who use their own money to fund their campaigns are not such a bad thing.  I hope you will join the conversation!

As an introduction, check out this podcast produced the day before the 2006 midterm elections to hear some of my initial thoughts on candidates who pay for their own campaigns.

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