Way back in 1975, the folks in Washington made the mistake of thinking that regulating campaign finances was a good idea and they gave us the Federal Election Commission (FEC) and strict limits on individual contributions to federal candidates. Like so many big government progressive ideas, it had a superficial appeal which has since been offset by predictable unintended consequences. Like so many big government progressive ideas, it was the beginning of an evolving disaster. Their real dream was total federal (a euphemism for taxpayer) funding and regulation of elections, but that was a bridge too far at the time – thank God.
Under the new law, no one could give more than $2,500 to a candidate. The new law also birthed the political alien known as the Political Action Committee, which could contribute $5000. I was one of those political Neanderthals that thought federal control over elections was a bad idea generally, and the new federal election law specifically,
We Neanderthals saw a problem – a loophole in the law. The only people exempted from the contribution limits were the candidates, themselves. The uninhibited use of one’s own money in a campaign is a First Amendment right – so sayeth the Supreme Court. How level is the playing field when a Daddy (or Mommy) Warbucks candidate can pour unlimited funds into his or her own campaign and their opponent must run around with a tin cup begging for loose change.
By way of example, let’s say Daddy Warbucks is near the top of Forbes Fortunate 400 list with a net worth in the high tens of billions and he decides to run for President. On day one, he commits to spending $20 billion dollars. (incidentally, that is approximately 31 times what the record-setting Hillary Clinton campaign spent in losing in 2016). To reach parity, Warbucks opponent would have to raise the maximum legal donation from approximately 8 million supporters – and whatever he could raise would take tons of time, phone calls and receptions. Very little time for campaigning on the issues.
Then there is the cost of fundraising. While the billionaire candidate has his money in hand on day one and it can be spent on getting the message out immediately, his opponent would have to raise up to $30 billion to have the same $20 billion to spend on the campaign. Why? Because of the costs associated with fundraising – costs the billionaire does not incur. That requires another 4 million maximum contributors.
Since the passage of the federal election law, we have seen the steady rise of the self-funded millionaire and billionaire candidates. The Goldman Sachs alum, Jon Corzine, took a United States Senate seat in New Jersey. David Bloomberg financed his way into Gracie Manor in New York City as a stepping stone for his presidential ambitions. Billionaires Bruce Rauner and Rick Scott moved into the governor’s mansions in Illinois and Florida respectively – and Scott is making the move to the Senate. Billionaire Tom Steyer is using his “impeach Trump” campaign to collect email address and other information for an increasingly likely 2020 run for the presidency. Personal wealth fueled the careers of the top three wealthiest U.S. senators. They are multimillionaires Mark Warner (VA), Diane Feinstein (CA) and Richard Blumenthal (CN). It is no small irony that they are all Democrats.
While attacking the Republican one-percenters, Bernie Sanders actually earned more than $1 million in 2016 while running for president. The prospect of gaining more wealth will keep one-percent Sanders in the race for 2020.
As unfortunate as this trend has been, the worst is yet to come. His name is Mark Zuckerberg. In just a few short years after coming up with Facebook, Zuckerberg Is number four on Forbes list with a personal fortune of $71 billion – and growing. By virtue of his business, the t-shirted tycoon has access to one of the greatest electronic storehouses of personal data in the world. At the age of 33, Zuckerberg will meet the minimum legal age requirement for the presidency in 2020.
Zuckerberg can use just a portion of his massive wealth and his access to critical data – and the knowledge how to best use it – to kick start the most expensive, by far, presidential campaign in American history. Only a colleague billionaire near the top of Forbes list could possibly challenge him – and none have shown any interest in doing so.
Then there is the really bad news. Unlike billionaire peers like Bill Gates or Warren Buffet, who had no interest in political office, Zuckerberg has made no secret of his ambition to be President of the United States one day. He has already started a cross-country speaking tour that has all the earmarks of pre-campaign planning.
In August of 2017, Vanity Fair published an article about Zuckerberg with a subhead that read: “He’s probably going to seek higher office one day, and it looks like he’s already preparing for the job.” His speech at Harvard University did not deal with his history or his views on social media technology. He spoke of national political issues – laying out a few planks in his platform.
If he has no presidential ambitions, and on occasion he says he has none, why did Zuckerberg hire such political operatives as Obama/Clinton pollster/advisor Joel Benenson, Obama 2008 Campaign Manager David Plouffe and Amy Dudley, communications director for vice presidential candidate Tim Kaine?
Unless we are willing to cede America to authoritarian billionaires, we need to drastically change our federal elections laws. The most important change is to abolish the limits on contributions from any source – people, corporations and unions – but keep the all-important reporting laws for major donations. It should be up to the voter to decide if a huge donation influences his or her vote.
This would end the stupidity of independent expenditure campaigns that can support a candidate, but without his or her approval or knowledge. There still may be collective funding through Political Actions Committees (PACs), but their contributors will be reported to the public.
Ironically, unlimited funding does not make the billionaires more powerful and influential, it actually reduces their individual value by adding competition to the marketplace – and it severely reduces the advantage of the self-funded campaigns. Even against Zuckerberg’s multibillion-dollar campaign, a contender with access to major donations could level that playing field quite a bit.