New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg is on track to set a new record for spending his own money in pursuit of political office. He is projected to spend between $110 million and $140 million by election day. It is a lot of money to us working stiffs, but just a drop in the bucket to Bloomberg, who is estimated to be worth about $16 billion. His challenger, in contrast, has raised about $6 million.
So what? Why should we care about this kind of spending disparity? Bloomberg has been a pretty good mayor by most accounts. Some other wealthy candidates, like Steve Forbes, spent millions of their personal fortunes without winning an election, which suggests that voters are savvy enough to independently determine who will get their vote without being swayed by an endless parade of the candidate’s self-financed TV commercials. There may be advantages to wealthy candidates, too. Presumably the independently wealthy are less likely to be tempted by bribery and can concentrate on governing, rather than constantly engaging in fund-raising, with its attendant, inherent corruption. And maybe successful entrepreneurs who have made millions in the business world are better suited to managing the governmental bureaucracies in large cities and states or have a more sophisticated understanding of the capitalistic system that will help them to develop economic policy.
Nevertheless, there is something galling about wealthy people buying their way into political office. It just seems unfair, particularly when the personal wealth being spent is inherited wealth. Under our current system, however, it also seems almost inevitable. Election campaigns start too early and run on too long, and any candidate with a hope of success in any significant race has to have millions in the bank to pay for the commercials, and polls, and advisors, and campaign organizations. Moreover, right now there aren’t many alternatives. As the last presidential election indicated, the public financing system is a bit of a joke. Both candidates promised to use it, but when President Obama took off to a huge fundraising advantage he declined public funds and used his considerable war chest to help ensure victory. The only way to avoid that kind of scenario is to mandate public financing or strictly limit all spending — two scenarios that have free speech implications — or to make campaigns so brief that less money is needed to run them.
No plausible solutions to this predicament are on the horizon, and with all of the other issues our country is facing financing elections is not a top priority. For now, we’ll just have to endure the reality of millionaire politicians and hope that voters continue to judge them on their merits and not on their pocketbooks.