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Schwarzenegger, Dean Lesson: Fix the Money Problem in Politics

At first glance — OK, even at second glance — California Gov.-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean (D) don’t seem to have much in common. Their surprising successes in recent weeks, however, prove that both men understand the powerful impulse driving American voters as we head into the presidential cycle. Observers from every political persuasion need to learn some lessons from both men. [IMGCAP(1)]

First, the Governator. California is a politically complex state, and it has had its share of problems. As David Broder concluded, the dominant factor in voters’ decisions to throw out Gov. Gray Davis (D) was the devastating perception that he was “widely viewed as corrupted by campaign cash.” The politically untested but popular actor was, if nothing else, an outsider who managed to persuade an overwhelmingly Democratic electorate that only a complete neophyte could help Californians “take their government back.”

Now, the Doctor. Dean continues to perplex members of the old guard, who believe that progressive candidates who appeal primarily to the activist party base can’t raise the cash to win. Instead, the former governor leads the “establishment” candidates, raising an astonishing $14.8 million in the past quarter — more than any Democratic candidate in history. Beyond the money, Dean’s campaign has captured the imagination of millions of new voters, tapped the nascent Internet community and drawn hundreds of unpaid volunteers from throughout the country to his cause. Despite the barrage of negative attacks from his better-known and more-experienced rivals, Dean remains in the driver’s seat in two crucial early contests: Iowa and New Hampshire.

So what do these very different politicians have in common?

In their own ways, they’re both tapping into the very large percentage of the public that has simply lost faith in government and politics as usual. In alarming numbers, Americans feel Washington is a wholly owned subsidiary of big multinational corporations and their highly paid lobbyists who call the tune in Congress. A bipartisan poll conducted last year revealed that 74 percent of the public believes that Members of Congress sometimes do what their corporate contributors want them to do — even if it’s not what their constituents want or the right thing for the country. The Bush administration, with its Halliburton handouts and passionate tango with Corporate America, has done everything it can to prove those skeptics right.

With their take-your-government-back messages, Schwarzenegger and Dean are drawing the same broad swath of independent and disaffected voters that fueled Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) revolution in 2000, when the maverick Senator pledged to clean up the way political campaigns are financed. In the process, McCain nearly derailed Bush in the GOP primaries, despite Bush’s overwhelming financial advantage and establishment embrace.

All of this indicates that both parties are still willfully ignoring the single best way to capture those voters: fix the money problem in American politics. Let’s start with the presidential public financing system.

By the Nov. 4 drop-dead date, Democratic presidential campaigns must either opt out of the system or “bust the cap.” Rather than condemning them, we (and the reform community) should recognize that decision for what it is: final evidence that the system is simply broken. With the sharply front-loaded primary season, candidates who accept the voluntary limits are going to be clean out of money by the time the field is winnowed to a few Democrats or a single nominee, which will occur by mid-March. At that point, they’re going to face an incumbent president with no primary opponent and a war chest roughly the size of the gross domestic product of some Third World nations.

To make the system work, we need to raise the primary spending limits to a realistic level and increase the “match” ratio of public-to-private money. We can make the program solvent by giving taxpayers the option to direct more of their tax liability to the program when they check off the public financing box on their tax returns. If we educate Americans about what that money is for, I believe they’ll happily direct $5 or so of the taxes they’re paying anyway to help stop the fundraising arms race.

But there’s still more that Congress can do:

• Free air time for candidates. More than 60 organizations have endorsed bipartisan legislation to reduce the expense that drives the skyrocketing cost of TV and radio advertising. The legislation requires stations to respect the fact that they use the public airwaves by broadcasting several hours of public interest programming every week during election season. It would also create a voucher system, which would allow candidates who agree to limit their spending to get vouchers for free broadcast time. The program will “match” every donation of up to $250, which is but another way of getting candidates to focus on small donors. The plan would be funded by a one-half percent fee on spectrum use by stations — an entirely reasonable reclamation of the public airwaves after the great spectrum giveaway of the 1980s.

• Fix the Federal Election Commission. Nobody believes the FEC enforces campaign law well. However, the regulated community, including politicians from both parties and the lawyers who represent them, are happy to see it stay that way. The agency has refused to punish egregious violations and opened gaping loopholes in McCain-Feingold. The FEC has made it clear that no other reforms are going to be effective until we have some sort of checks and balances on them. Bipartisan legislation introduced this year would scrap the system and start over with a new Federal Election Administration. It would have only three commissioners to avoid partisan deadlocks, and administrative law judges would objectively enforce the law.

It is clear to me from the result in California and the success of newcomer Dean that we must take a step back and begin to acknowledge that American voters have reason to be disenchanted with politics. As a Democrat, I know our party’s values of fairness and inclusion should challenge us to once again take the lead to embrace new reforms to fixing the money system. There are some good proposals out there to discuss with voters this upcoming electoral season. Who knows, with a little leadership and a pinch of boldness, they may enjoy a new recipe for victory.

Donna L. Brazile, the campaign manager for Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore in 2000, runs her own grassroots political consulting firm.

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