Fresh Air

Tom Steyer: The Fresh Air of Politics without Begging for Money

One of the refreshing things about going to Tom Steyer’s “Need to Impeach” web site is that there is no “DONATE” button. He wants your name, e-mail address and zip code, if you are so inclined to support his movement to build public support to consider impeaching President Donald Trump.

Granted, Steyer is a billionaire, so the cost of mounting this on-line campaign is pocket change to him. But when was the last time that you remember a well-heeled candidate or organization mount a political campaign without asking for money?

We have long-since reached a point where the viability of a political candidate or movement is measured in terms of money raised. This is why your inbox gets deluged with requests for political donations at the end of every month, and more so at the end of every fiscal quarter. The candidates want your money for two basic reasons. First, they want income to cover the expenses of campaigning. Regrettably, much of this money goes to buying media time which often involves either distorting their own record or that of their opponents.

Second, they want the bragging rights of having raised ‘x’ amount of money, particularly when ‘x’ is greater than that of their opponents. The political handicappers then get behind them and say that they are the candidates to beat.

The first problem with this approach is that it is very undemocratic. The appeal may be sent to the rank and file, but the real target is the donor class. Candidates love to say that they will accept donations of three dollars, but what they really want are the four and five figure donations from those who make a habit of funding political campaigns. There can be exceptions to this rule such as Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign where the average donation was $27, and he had millions of supporters make small donations. But unless a candidate has a real message like Bernie, he or she is going to have to fund a campaign by tapping into the resources of the donor class.

Money is necessary for campaigns, but far less necessary than in the past. Campaigns now can be targeted and decentralized. The mode of communication need not be the printed piece or the commercial spread over a mass market. Rather, the internet, and social media in particular, can be the vehicle by which the message is delivered. Not only is this inexpensive, but it also provides candidates with opportunities to explain in detail what their positions are on various issues. No need to engage in cost-saving editing.

To paraphrase James Carville, candidates continue to shill for money. It’s the “bragging rights,” stupid. Bragging is one of the three ‘B’s’ that most characterize asking for money:

  1. Begging
  2. Boorish
  3. Bragging

If you think about your relationship as a voter to the candidate, these are terrible words to characterize your relationship. These are among the last things that you would want in a friendship.

So, what can we do about it. A couple of things:

  1. Public financing of elections. Many pay lip service to this, but few make it a priority. But as voters, we can restrict our support to candidates who truly value it.
  2. Support candidates who exercise self-restraint in raising money. These candidates are more likely to have clean campaigns which are truly informative. Their real constituency is more likely to be the entire voter base rather than the donor class.
  3. Encourage those like Tom Steyer who can afford to get the message out without begging for money to do so. It is like a waft of fresh air to open a political solicitation with no request for money.

Ultimately, we as voters have the power to reject candidates who are all about money. Disseminating this message can be inexpensive. If each of us tries to lead by example, we’ll be off to an excellent start.