Here’s an observation about the presidential election campaign: It is necessary to have a candidate campaign committee that can raise a lot of money – but probably not sufficient. We’re already hundreds of millions of dollars into the 2016 campaign and much of the money behind most of the candidates is going to independent-spending super PACs. That’s where the six and seven-figure checks go. That’s where the brass-knuckles political attacks originate. Only Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump disavow super PAC support for their candidacy. Jeb Bush’s super PAC Right to Rise had raised more than $100 million by June 30th.
In some cases, one uber-wealthy donor can make a candidate viable. Remember Sheldon Adelson and Newt Gingrich, and Joe Ricketts and Rick Santorum in the 2012 Republican primary? Sometimes, though, a handful of billionaires aren’t enough to make an inept candidate viable. See Rick Perry and Scott Walker.
For most Americans, this doesn’t feel like democracy. It feels like a very few hands are moving all the game pieces of the American political experience.
The presidential campaign is a large-scale replica of Michigan’s big campaigns of 2014: Gary Peters winning our U.S. Senate seat and Rick Snyder winning reelection as governor. In the Senate contest, the candidates raised $22 million and independent committees spent $36 million. In the gubernatorial, the candidates had $22 million and independent committees spent $41 million. More than 80 percent of the independent spending in the gubernatorial wasn’t reported to the State of Michigan. You could learn about some of the committees from the Internal Revenue Service or Federal Election Commission, but most of the money in the gubernatorial campaign just wasn’t reported to the Michigan Bureau of Elections.
Only the naïve believe that money in politics doesn’t yield a great return on investment. Donald Trump loves to regale a crowd with stories about buying public policy, although he hasn’t said whether he believes that pas de deux is bribery or extortion. We need fully transparent reporting of money in politics so we can connect the dots between contributions and policy considerations granted to campaign patrons. Transparency is inoculation against corruption.
In Michigan, much of what is disclosed is reported too late to inform voters. Millions of dollars in independent expenditures were ultimately reported, but not until months after the 2014 election. That is one aberration that doesn’t occur in federal campaign reporting.
The $43 million of spending in Michigan’s 2014 state campaigns that never was reported was nearly double the previous record for our state elections. If you think that would move the legislature to strengthen disclosure requirements, you are wrong.
In fact, in 2013 the legislature amended a perfectly sound disclosure statute that had long been misinterpreted by Terri Lynn Land’s Department of State after it was announced that Ruth Johnson’s administration, acting upon a request from the State Bar of Michigan, was going to correct that misinterpretation. Now our statute requires only messages that include magic words of “express advocacy” to be reported. That amendment to foreclose disclosure of phony “issue ads” passed without a single Democratic vote. Too bad no one administered the Hippocratic Oath to the Republican lawmakers.
The most disappointing part of the dark money act, PA 252 of 2013, was Gov. Snyder signing it. When he ran as a politically virgin candidate in 2010 he cribbed a public ethics platform nearly perfectly verbatim from a paper I had published three years before.
When the bill to suppress disclosure hit his desk he said he had “evolved” on the issue and signed the bill into law. That signing broke my heart. I don’t know whether the governor felt that he really needed the money in the 2014 campaign (the act also doubled contribution limits for candidates), or he got rolled politically, or he really believes that society can’t be free unless political donors and officeholders are free from accountability to voters. None is an honorable rational.
I see Michigan as the Dark Money Capital of American Politics. If someone can show me I’m wrong, I wish they’d do it. Meanwhile, democracy is under assault in Michigan. Our political disclosure policy is borrowed from the Wizard of Oz: “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.”
That is a culture of corruption.