Money is the Root of All Incumbency
"Self-control is the most exhilarating of pleasures." (Wm. F. Buckley)
The Buckley quote is one of my favorites, although as a person with a closet respect for epicureans, I've never been sure whether I fully agree. Another favorite is from the lovesick poet William Butler Yeats, who said, "Sometimes all of life seems a preparation for something that never happens."
If you stick with this blog, you may see Yeats and Buckley again. I used to teach and occasionally write about Yeats, and Buckley's sister, Priscilla, was a major force behind my writing career.
One of my favorite journalists recently wrote me -- we write each other regularly -- and basically said, "Hold! Enough!" on my calling Jack Murtha and some similar folks corrupt. I had used a line -- shamelessly stolen from the aforesaid Bill Buckley -- saying that Jack Murtha was to corruption as Typhoid Mary was to typhoid.
My friend's point was that I had assumed my Mary Poppins persona, which admittedly I've been known to do.
My mother warned the world about me when I was age 7, saying, "Stephen has very high expectations for people, and so I fear he's likely to suffer many disappointments in life." As time has shown, she was right.
My journalist friend tells me that politics by its nature involvez the making of deals. Elected officials, he insists, won't usually take your money in exchange for a vote, which would be illegal.
Instead, they do things in politics the way most of do things in life, with "a wink and a nod." Unlike, say, angels, politicians -- being people -- do things with mixed motives.
Specifically, political candidates won't vote for measures that turn their stomachs. However, they need money to conduct campaigns and pay all those phone bills, purchase the bumper stickers, "vote for me" buttons, and the like.
If elected officials take positions on issues, they appreciate gratitude (maybe rarer in politics than in life generally). They have a right to expect people who agree with them and who benefit from their votes to support them in various ways, including financially.
Suprise! I don't disagree with the views expressed. However, when it comes down to American politics as it has evolved, the system no longer works.
Every two years or so, we hear all sorts of righteous concern about Americans who have given up on politics -- especially, those people who don't vote. We wag our collective finger at those individuals who don't live up to one of their basic obligations of citizenship.
Well, the non-voters have a good point.
Frankly, American elections -- particularly at the federal level -- are largely a sham. They're a case of people, voters, waiting for something that never happens: a truly free and FAIR election.
How can that be? It's because the playing field in elections is not level, but rather sharply tilted in favor of whatever political party holds a seat.
Consider the following from the Center for Responsive Politics (the link is www.opensecrets.org):
In 93 percent of House of Representatives races and 67 percent of Senate races that had been decided by mid-day Nov. 9,  the candidate who spent the most money won, according to a post-election analysis by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. The findings are based on candidates' spending through Oct. 18, as reported to the Federal Election Commission.
The biggest spender was victorious in 398 of 428 decided House races and 22 of 33 decided Senate races. On Election Day 2004, top spenders won 98 percent of House races and 88 percent of Senate races.
Overall, 94 percent of House incumbents and 79 percent of senators have won re-election, below incumbents' re-election rates over the past few cycles. (This includes incumbents who lost their primaries.)
For people who believe in representative government, these are devastating numbers. It means candidates who are in office almost always stay in, while those who are out -- not incumbents -- might as well turn their attention to ping pong in lieu of politics.
I'm not saying all those hours volunteers spend making phone calls, holding coffees, and handing out yard signs don't have an effect. But phone calls, coffee, and yard signs cost money -- although not nearly as many dollars as the ubiquitous TV commercials and the high-paid consultants and pollsters.
As a VERY low-paid consultant, I'm trying to keep costs down!
If you want to be a serious political candidate and lack funds, you'll learn the truth of the college student's (and his father's) exchange.
Son: "Dad. No mon. No fun. Your Son"
Father: "So sad. Too bad. Your Dad."
Here's the way our sad, bad system works.
If you're an incumbent, political action committees (PACS) and wealthy individuals will shower you with campaign donations. If you're a challenger, you will have to scrap, struggle, and nearly beg for money.
You may be one of the best candidates in the history of the Republic and have great stands on issues, but if you aren't an incumbent and don't have a ton of campaign money, you will lose. Just ask Diana Lynn Irey of Pennsylvania's 12th congressional district.
If you're an awful person with a terrible record, but have a great deal of money and the benefit of incumbency, you'll probably win. Just ask John Murtha of Pennsylvania's 12th congressional district.
In the future I'll talk more about money in politics and suggest some ways certain candidates (Bob Casey, Jason Altmire, PA state representative Jim Marshall, and others) overcome the built-in advantages of incumbents. However, tomorrow's column will deal with one of America's biggest windbags and airheads, Senator Joe Biden, who seems to have no problems accumulating cash and getting re-elected. Biden speaks like someone for whom English is at best his fourth language. Later, I'll write about points made by Larry Arnn (quoted above), who reminded me of an economic concept, "the price elasticity of demand." That means when something costs more, we buy less. Profound, huh?