Past presidents wouldn’t recognize Campaign 2016

The U.S. political system as a machine driven by money and special interests.
The U.S. political system as a machine driven by money and special interests. Tribune News Service

As the presidential primary fight proceeds to Nevada, South Carolina and beyond, voters should insist that serious candidates make clear their plans for overhauling the federal campaign finance system.

It surely ought to be at the top of any serious candidate’s domestic to-do list.

In their inimitable ways, candidates Sen. Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump deserve credit for discussing the twisted campaign finance system and how it perverts our nation’s governance.

In August, Republican presidential wannabes made pilgrimages to a gathering of wealthy donors sponsored by billionaire brothers David and Charles Koch in the California desert.

Billionaire Trump, who is using his own money to fund his campaign, snidely tweeted: “I wish good luck to all of the Republican candidates that traveled to California to beg for money etc. from the Koch Brothers. Puppets?” The point: Candidates become beholden to their donors.

More than 70 percent of Sanders’ money – upward of $54 million – has come in small money donations. It’s an astounding sum, and shows that candidates with the right message can democratize the campaign finance system. Legislation by Rep. John Sarbanes, D-Md., would encourage candidates to seek out small money donations by guaranteeing matching of federal funds.

On the stump and in debates, Sanders regularly points out that Wall Street magnates, drugmakers and oil companies give heavily to candidates, knowing full well that they will do their bidding once in office.

Sanders accuses his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, of soaking up Wall Street money. True enough, but if the past is any guide, the GOP nominee almost certainly will receive the lion’s share of Wall Street and oil money in what will be a billion-dollar-plus campaign.

Since 2010 when the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, donors have been giving ever larger donations, much of the sum hidden, and much of it given to grotesque political action committees – the Super PACs – that supposedly operate independently of candidates, but do their dirty work by attacking their opponents.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, that opinion’s author, claimed in the ruling that there would be immediate disclosure of huge donations. That statement proved to be naive at best, disingenuous at worst. As has become painfully apparent, disclosure is for other people, not the super-rich who give to dark money entities.

The Federal Election Commission is in dire need of repair. As FEC member Ann Ravel points out, the FEC, which is supposed to enforce the existing campaign finance laws, is mired in partisan rancor, unable and unwilling to use its power.

Campaign operatives have perverted the tax code, transforming nonprofit corporations into campaign operations while using anonymous donations to fund those efforts. The tax law must be rewritten to end the practice.

Earlier this month, the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics reported that the Internal Revenue Service had granted tax-exempt status to Crossroads GPS, the campaign entity created by Republican strategist Karl Rove.

As the center noted, the ruling gave “an air of legitimacy to the more than $330 million that Crossroads GPS has raised and spent over the years, most of it on election-related ads and candidate support.”

New Yorker writer Jane Mayer writes in her new book, “Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right,” that wealthy members of the Kochs’ cabal intend to spend $880 million to influence this year’s election. Voters never will know the identities of many of the individuals who make the donations because they will give anonymously to secretive nonprofit corporations.

We cannot help but wonder what the great presidents – FDR, Theodore Roosevelt, Lincoln, Washington – and most of the lesser presidents would think of how the 2016 campaign is funded. Would they recognize it? Could they have won in such a system?