Big money politics gets bigger

Mike Ellis, the Fox Valley Republican who is dean of the Wisconsin senate and its most outspoken member, put his sharp tongue right on the impact of over-the-top money on recent and current elections.

He said, “Candidates are irrelevant to campaigns.”

The contributions from supposedly unaffiliated interest groups have, he said, “hijacked these (recall) elections, and the candidate have nothing to do with it.”

His acidic view is an over-statement , of course. But when the outside money on both sides of the political divide outstrips the funds raised by the candidates themselves, there is political truth there.

The nine recall elections in Wisconsin this summer, which will determine control of the state senate, are expected to draw more than $25 million in total spending. One race alone, the contest between Republican Sen. Alberta Darling and Democratic Rep. Sandy Pasch in counties north of Milwaukee, will cost more than $4 million, an all-time high by far.

Most of the high roller dough will be spent on TV and radio ads that do more harm than good to the political process. For the most part, the ads distort rather than clarify the positions of the candidates.

And they are generally nasty in nature.

Darling likened the attack campaigns to “beaten to a bloody pulp.”

Whatever her views, Darling is a long-serving, hard-working, honorable politician. Do we want people like her hammered to the point where they don’t want to serve?

Among the Democratic and union attacks on Darling has been one that she wants to end Social Security. It’s totally immaterial, since state legislators have nothing to do with the shaping of that federal program.

On the other side, Republicans and their outside support groups have characterized Pasch as far softer on crime than warranted. Pasch is not, as has been contended, on the side of the criminals.

The political reality of the day is that there is a gulf between the two parties on many issues – spending, taxes, the nature and value of corporations and the vaporization of collective bargaining for public employees.  Ergo, the distortions serve no purposes in terms of differentiation of the candidates.

Rather, they are corrosive to our political process.  They inhibit, even prohibit, real problem solving in the public arena.

If I had my way, there would be sharp limits on television campaign advertising. The ads produce sound, fury and little of significance.

Yet the costs are enormous, both in absolute dollars and in the political IOUs owed by the candidates. The big money players on both sides of aisle want a return on investment, and that, in turn, hardens the lines on issues. The big dough is a major reason for the increasing divisiveness and partisanship in American politics.

The people in the political industry love the big money. They get a cut of the action in the form of salaries, expenses and careers. So do the big broadcasting companies. They are cats in catnip.

They make a First Amendment case for spending escalation, and, unfortunately, the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed. The limits on outside groups, unions and corporations alike, have been lifted.

Advocates for public financing of campaigns would neutralize imbalances in spending with either set amounts of funding for each candidate or amounts to offset any funding disadvantage by one candidate over another.

President Obama will probably raise a billion dollars for his 2012 campaign, which is a lot of dough to raise from taxpayers for a public financing of the presidential campaign. But it’s a drop in the bucket compared to the damage done by the big IOUs from interest groups. Yet, there is little appetite for public financing.

Russell Baker, a longtime liberal columnist for The New York Times, argued for years that the air waves belong to the public, and broadcasters only license their use. As such, he contended, limits on their use for political ads should be constitutional.

And, free speech never was unlimited.

The present barrage of political defamation, distortion and over-simplification does not serve the citizens well. Indeed, they are generally disgusted with the quantity and quality of the attacks.

Where oh where is the constitutional scholar who can convincingly make that case?

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