Of the upcoming presidential election, Bill Moyers and Michael Winship ask: "How can there be change when so much money is coming from the usual big business suspects?" (Illustration: Th. Nast)
Our Manhattan offices are in a building that also houses the New York City Board of Elections. So this is the season when we hear above our heads the sounds of heavy objects rolling across the floor into freight elevators. The moving men have arrived - and what they're transporting are voting machines being carted off to polling places.
It's reassuring, the sound of those big metal boxes being rolled out so we can cast our votes, but all too often in our fair city (as no doubt where you live, too) we are confronted by an end run on the part of a political elite, many of whom don't really trust what comes out of the ballot box on Election Day unless they've fixed what goes in.
For some weeks now, we've watched our mayor, Mike Bloomberg, maneuver to undermine the will of the people. Once upon a time the mayor supported the rule that city officials can only serve two terms. But then someone pointed out that term limits applied to him, too, and that he couldn't run for a third term. So he set out to change the rules. But instead of asking the people to vote on it in a public referendum, the mayor decided he couldn't risk his ambition on a fickle public.
So he turned first to his fellow moguls, who own the city's major newspapers - Murdoch of the New York Post and The Wall Street Journal; Zuckerman of the Daily News, and Sulzberger of The New York Times. Then, according to the Times, with his considerable philanthropic clout - before the financial meltdown, his worth was some $20 billion - the mayor leaned for support on the community and arts groups that depend on his charitable largesse.
Then he dodged the public referendum process by jawboning and cajoling the city council, whose members, lo and behold, would also enjoy a chance at a third term just by giving the mayor what he wants.
By just about all accounts, Mayor Bloomberg has been a fine mayor, and there are good people arguing that Gotham City needs his unique experience during a financial crisis that not even Batman or Spider-Man can untangle. But New York said no to Rudy Giuliani when he tried to pull the third-term hat trick in the aftermath of 9/11, and under other circumstances it's likely Bloomberg, too, would have been told, "No, thank you. We prefer due process."
The mayor's ploy has the odor about it of Silvio Berlusconi, Italy's perennial plutocrat. But even Silvio's forebears, those Roman emperors who similarly ruled by decree, had a minion standing behind them whose sole job was to whisper, "Remember, Caesar, thou art mortal."
We tell ourselves that no one is above the law, but that seems hard for some politicians to grasp. So now we also have the spectacle of Alaska Senator Ted Stevens, 84 years old, who likes to wear a tie emblazoned with the visage of that popular anti-hero, the Incredible Hulk. Convicted this week on seven counts of lying on financial disclosure forms, Stevens declared, "It's not over yet." Then off he headed back to Alaska, where the state's Republican Party said voters shouldn't be denied the services of one of the country's most successful pork merchants just because he's a convicted felon.
That's the kind of argument we've always heard in Washington, and you have to wonder if Barack Obama or John McCain really think they can deliver on their promises to change that culture. Special interests are entrenched and incorrigible, and they're spending the money to keep it that way.
This year's will be the most expensive federal election in history - the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics estimates that the presidential and Congressional candidates will spend more than $5.3 billion. Among incumbents in the House of Representatives, 79 percent of their campaign funds come from beyond their home districts - of the top 20 ZIP Codes making those contributions, 15 are in Washington, DC, and the surrounding Maryland and Virginia suburbs - home base for lobbyists and lawyers, corporate PAC's, unions and other special interests whose money buys access you don't have as a citizen.
Nearly two and a half billion dollars is being spent for the presidency, twice what was spent four years ago and triple the amount in 2000. The Obama campaign has boasted how it's the average citizens who have been funding him - small contributions made over the Internet and such. But Senator Obama has no shortage of high rollers - he's received more than $37 million from lawyers and lobbyists, $21.6 million from the communications and electronics industries, $16 million from health care interests. While fewer than 2,600 contributors to John McCain list their occupation as "chief executive," nearly 6,000 of Obama's contributors are CEO's. If you don't think any of these donors will be hoping for at least a little something in return, I've got a Bridge to Nowhere I'd like to sell you.
How can there be change when so much money is coming from the usual big business suspects? Hedging their bets, many of them are giving more money to Democrats this year than to Republicans - Democratic Congressional candidates are receiving more from corporate political action committees than Republicans, the first time that's happened since 1994. The drug company lobbyist PhRMA - the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America - is prescribing more than $13 million worth of advertising for 28 members of Congress, 25 of whom are Democrats.
Democrats also hold a slight edge in money coming from the finance sector. Finance, insurance and the real estate industries - combined, they're the biggest players of all in this election cycle, contributing more than $373 million to Democrats and Republicans. That's on top of the $288 million they've spent so far this year on lobbying. Is it any wonder that Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson is so freely donating banks and financial institutions the $700 billion financial bailout with so few conditions? As Time magazine reported, "Uncle Sam has a new name on Wall Street - Sugar Daddy."
So can change happen in Washington when the usual suspects are piling up money like sandbags to protect against the public's clamor for a better deal? We're about to find out.