RALEIGH — Those who defend the insane amount of money involved in running for political office typically do so on three fronts.
First, they note that spending is far from an absolute predicator of electoral success; that winners sometimes spend less than their opponents and losers sometimes more. In other words – despite six- or even seven-figure legislative races and eight-figure gubernatorial and U.S. Senate races – nobody is buying elections.
Next, in defense of the gobs of money, they will say that $1 million or $10 million is not much money when legislators and governors make decisions affecting a $20 billion enterprise called state government, not to mention decisions affecting a larger private-sector economy.
Finally, they will talk about how the money chase is just another reflection of a candidate’s public support. So someone with solid credentials can raise money, and those without cannot.
All of those points are arguable.
But the arguments would skip over the larger problems regarding money in politics.
The biggest of those problems is not what money does to the electoral process. It is what it does to the candidates once they are elected.
Fifty years ago, Jesse Unruh, speaker of the California State Assembly, made a comment that if you couldn’t eat and drink from the lobbyists’ trough and then vote against their interests, politics shouldn’t be your gig.
Those thoughts appear naïve or disingenuous today.
The recent debate over tax reform in North Carolina proves the point.
The state Senate’s primary architect of tax reform, Bob Rucho, rushed headlong into putting together a comprehensive tax-reform plan that pretty obviously was going to gore plenty of the business groups in the state.
He acknowledged that his plan, by getting rid of a lot of tax exemptions even as he proposed eliminating corporate income taxes, would anger some of those groups.
“Members of the audience, would you just raise your hands if you’re lobbyists,” Rucho said at a meeting of the Senate Finance Committee. “Members of the committee, I just want you to remember, those are the folks that are in the process of trying to be sure that this tax system stays complicated and loopholes are maintained.”
And what eventually happened?
His fellow Republican senators pulled the plug on his plan, producing a Christmas-in-July tax-cut bill instead.
In the end, they weren’t prepared to risk losing all of the campaign cash that flows from those same interest groups.
Of course, a lot of politicians argue that their decisions aren’t affected by the money. Who would want to admit it?
A lot of non-politicians look at those denials and laugh. They decide that they don’t want to live in such a world, and so they leave the nasty business of politics to others.
And so, the other effect of the massive amounts of money invading politics is that more and more good people don’t run, and political leadership suffers as a result.
Scott Mooneyham is a syndicated columnist who writes about state government and politics.