Posted 10 months ago on July 16, 2012, 7:53 a.m. EST by flip
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Democrats blame Washington’s inability to get anything done on Republican obstructionism, and in large part they are right. But there’s another part. In March, Senate Democrats couldn’t get the votes they needed in their own caucus to pass a bill that would end billions in subsidies to oil companies. They were lucky the Republicans are so corrupt that all but two of them voted to preserve the subsidies.
It didn’t — and doesn’t — have to be this way. In early 2010 I was approached by a coalition of public interest groups determined to wage a successful campaign to finance clean, fair elections. The policy they advocated was pretty simple. Right now, the first question party officials responsible for recruiting candidates for Congress ask is, “How much money can you raise?” How deeply you share the values of the party is a secondary consideration.
So how can we get away from money-driven candidacies? Let the folks back home decide who gets funding.
The idea behind the Fair Elections bill was that candidates could solicit small donations from people in their state or district — whether up to $100, $250 or $500 — and if they crossed a threshold of support designed to avoid subsidizing fringe candidates, they would receive $4 of public matching funds for every dollar they raised. It wouldn’t cost taxpayers a dime. Ending the oil subsidies the Senate rejected, for example, would provide as much as $4 billion every two years — roughly twice what all Congressional candidates combined spent in the 2010 elections. In effect, the savings in corruption would finance campaigns.
The question was how to talk about it. Voters aren’t interested in “process” issues. They want to know about outcomes. Voters from right to left will tell you, for example, that they overwhelming reject the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision to allow unlimited, anonymous money to flood our political system. But getting them worked up about election laws isn’t easy. You have to connect the dots to something that matters to them — like the fact that once-middle-class workers have seen their incomes drop by nearly 8 percent in three years and their wealth disappear by a staggering 40 percent. And you have to make sure they believe that the problem is not, as the right would have it, the extravagant pensions of teachers like my 82-year-old mother (who taught for over 30 years before retiring from the Atlanta city schools), but the actions of bankers and C.E.O.’s who’ve engineered a system that is decimating the middle class.
In studying voters’ responses to a range of messages, we discovered that Americans understand that our government is bought — and they want it back. You just have to speak with them in ways they can hear.
After reading a paragraph that described the Fair Elections bill, voters listened to messages online, moving their cursors, second by second, up if they liked what they were hearing and down if they didn’t. Our best-testing message led the dials steadily upward (producing the findings illustrated in the chart accompanying this article).
The results look like the dial tests viewers often see at the bottom of their television screens during presidential debates, except that they reflect the average of hundreds of people, not just 30 in a studio. What is perhaps most striking and unusual in this kind of message testing is the absence of virtually any differences in the reactions of Republicans, Democrats and independents. “It’s time we return to government of, by and for the people, not government of, bought and paid for by special interests,” the message began, and proceeded to develop that theme. It pointed out that “the job of a Wall Street banker is to get a good return on their investment, and unfortunately, they’ve taken those skills to Washington,” before landing on the idea that “politicians should work for us, not their corporate sponsors.”
That message beat a strong opposition message, 61 percent to 19 percent. And it was only one of several messages that won by extremely large margins.
So why isn’t Fair Elections the law of the land? We had consultants from both political parties on our team. We had the chair of the House Democratic Caucus, John B. Larson, sponsoring the legislation, and a high-ranking member of the Democratic Senate leadership, Richard J. Durbin, sponsoring it in the Senate. And at that time (the summer of 2010), Democrats controlled the House, the Senate and the White House. As I told the Democrats, they could probably save 20 seats in the House if they ran on this issue and a tax on millionaires, which was also wildly popular. But the bill never saw the light of day. (Neither did the millionaire’s tax.)
Precisely why Democrats never ran on or passed the bill is complex. Most members of Congress I’ve spoken with hate the current system, which relegates them to spending half their time like telemarketers begging donors for money. And those who aren’t completely corrupted by a system designed to corrupt even the most decent person often find themselves aware, at some level of consciousness, that what is for sale is their souls, as they compromise the interests of their constituents for the special interests of the few.
But the reality is that incumbents who play by the rules of a campaign-finance system that rewards the rich and well-connected tend to reap the corresponding electoral rewards, whereas those who refuse to play find themselves barraged at election time with millions of dollars in negative ads.