Not that he wanted to be, but the father of our country is also the father of campaign finance reform. After losing his first election in 1755, George Washington took the novel step of entertaining prospective voters in 1757 with a lavish buffet at the polling booth.
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In 21st-century politics, it would be called "voter education." In 1757, it was "a barrel of punch, 35 gal. of wine, 43 gal. of strong cider and dinner for his friends," and it cost 39 pounds and 6 shillings (about $195). It worked, and Washington was elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses. But his new colleagues also promptly passed a law barring candidates "or any persons on their behalf" from giving prospective voters "money, meat, drink, entertainment or provision or … any present, gift, reward or entertainment etc. in order to be elected." Where is the House of Burgesses when we need it! The U.S. Supreme Court, with huge assists from a federal appellate court and a dysfunctional Federal Election Commission, has unleashed a torrent of private cash into the public political system. That in turn has filled the airwaves, phone lines and mailboxes with political advertising most of it negative—degrading the candidates and trivializing the process.
Two problems have arisen, just as the burgesses anticipated. First are the candidates and the persons acting on their behalf. Candidates for federal office will raise and spend billions of dollars this year. President Obama already has raised twice as much as Mitt Romney. By Super Tuesday, this year's presidential candidates and their supporting super PACS had raised more money than was spent in the entire 2000 presidential campaign. Money doesn't magically appear. Office holders devote enormous time and energy to fundraising—time and energy diverted from the lawmaking and governmental duties they were elected to perform. By any measure, the impact of this time loss in Washington's output is clear.
The second concern is the flood of advertising, overwhelmingly negative. And if it's bad now, wait until October. The concern here is that the venomous rhetoric leaves no space for substantive discussion of the serious challenges the next president and Congress face. Imagine if the constructive energy devoted to producing this venom were devoted instead to explaining why gasoline prices are so high or the complexity of dealing with Iran's nuclear program, or the maze of practices and competitive forces that produce the world's highest health care costs. Or the choices for strengthening Social Security, or the consequences of closing tax loopholes.
There's a third problem, and it starts the day after Election Day. After the fiery, super PAC-financed rhetoric of this season's angry and negative campaign, where do the winning candidates find any room for compromise?
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