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Follow the Money, Find the Leader

by P. SAINATH

The point is not whether Barack Obama wins re-election as President. The point is not whether Mitt Romney can win. The point is that you can’t dream of contesting without a billion dollars. That figure merely ensures you can run, not win. Especially if the other guy can spend even more. All but the tiniest sliver of the elite stands priced out of the game. A democracy neatly labelled in another context, by economist Joseph Stiglitz, as: “Of the 1%, by the 1%, for the 1%.”

The two main candidates, their parties and ‘outside money’ will likely splurge $2.5 billion by the time the campaign fog clears in November. Throw in spending on the Congressional races, says the Centre for Responsive Politics (CRP) — the country’s foremost poll-spending tracker — and the total would close in on $6 billion. (That’s roughly Rs. 32,000 crore. A sum on which you could run the mid-day meal programme for 120 million Indian school children for three years).

Less than one per cent

If we take it that the two presidential campaigns burn equal sums of money, the campaign that wins will have spent over $1.25 billion, all sources included. Say Mr. Romney triumphs and hopes to run again in 2016. Just raising the same war chest means he’d have to, on average, secure over $850,000 every day of his four-year presidency. That leaves you little time for anything else other than pushing bills your funders want. Ask Mr. Obama. When it comes to the polls, then, it’s a fraction of that 1 per cent that calls the shots. (Allowing for variances in scale and form, it sounds a lot like the way Indian elections are or will be going).

Being hostage to money power is no myth. As Dave Lindorff points out in CounterPunch, the biggest contributors to the Obama campaign in 2008 were mostly financial companies. Apart from other big corporations. These included Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan Chase, and Citigroup, who gave him close to $2.5 million via Political Action Committees (PACs).

Another $1.5 million came from two more big banks, “UBS and Morgan Stanley, as well as General Electric, which less than a year later bought a bank.” GE did that in order to gorge on the government’s “bailout” with billions of “rescue” dollars from public money.

Mr. Obama repaid those debts, Mr. Lindorff points out. Among other things, he made Tim Geithner his Treasury Secretary. Mr. Geithner, as head of the New York Federal Reserve branch during the Bush era, “had ignored the derivatives scandals that brought on the financial crash.” Mr. Obama also made Lawrence Summers his top economic adviser. The same Summers who “as Treasury Secretary under President Bill Clinton, had pushed for the deregulation of derivatives, and for allowing banks to merge with investment banks.” There were other such jobs for the boys, too. Yet, this time around, Mr. Romney has collected more Wall Street money than Mr. Obama.

It might appear that direct spending in 2012 by both presidential campaigns is less than it was in 2008 — though not by much. But that’s if you look only at what the candidates or parties are doing. There’s also big spending by ‘Super PACs.’ These are groups that can raise unlimited amounts. Technically, they are not allowed to coordinate their advertising with the candidates. In truth, they act as de facto adjuncts to the campaigns. And after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2010 that threw out the rules on independent expenditures by corporations directly, there’s a lot more money flowing.

There are no limits on the sums that Super PACs can raise from corporations or others. Nor on how much they spend to support or defeat a candidate. (They cannot directly fund a candidate. And must submit details of their donors to the Federal Election Commission).

The CRP reckons that as of October 16: “935 groups organized as Super PACs have reported total receipts” of over $433 million. And “total independent expenditures” of close to $375 million in the 2012 cycle.

Most of the millions spent by outside groups went into television advertising, says the New York Times. In Iowa alone, the two campaigns and linked “independent” groups “have run more than 100,000 ads to win the state’s six electoral votes.”

Meanwhile, the pundits are swooning over the “energy” of the second Obama-Romney debate. This one was “more spontaneous.” What’s more, it had “a town hall format.” Well, yes, if town hall audiences can be handpicked by organisers. And if the town hall audience actually had to have a rehearsal with the moderators (as they did here). That’s apart from submitting all their questions for advance scrutiny — not quite a town hall practice.

Once again, neither man mentioned the word “inequality” at any point in the debate. That is the issue that sparked the ‘Occupy’ movement in countless towns across the country last year. It is an issue that worries several leading economists in the U.S. It is one that reflects in recent IRS data. It shows up in the Census data on poverty out barely a month ago.

But the word was as taboo as “corporate crime.” The only mention of it came from a questioner who wanted to know why women were paid 72 per cent of what men received for the same work. The closest Mr. Obama ever came near it was when he charged Mr. Romney with wanting “folks at the top” to “play by a different set of rules.” Neither mentioned the word even in his replies to the question.

Compensation on Wall Street rose by four per cent last year to $60 billion, says the New York Times. Higher than in any year except 2007 and 2008. And “the average pay packet of securities industry employees in New York state was $362,950, up 16.6 % over the last two years.” Meanwhile, about 25 million people who want full-time jobs can’t find them. The number of those on food stamps is at record levels. And 50 million people suffer food insecurity in a nation where, as economist Paul Buchheit points out: “The 10 richest Americans made enough money last year to feed every hungry person on earth for a year.”

There were a couple of other things in the debate that should interest Indians. Both candidates agonised over petrol prices — speaking to an audience that clearly felt the need to regulate those prices. Even more interesting: In the time given to the energy crisis, Mr. Obama never once mentioned nuclear energy as an option. He did not even club it under ‘clean’ energy. (Though he’s happy with India holding to that belief). “Wind, solar and bio-fuels” was his mantra. Mr. Romney mentioned ‘nuclear’ once but gave it no special status.

Setting up debates

And now more on who sets up the debates and how they are run. Last week, we ran Ralph Nader’s point about “the secret debate contract negotiated by the Obama and Romney campaigns that controls the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD), the campaigns’ corporate offspring.” Their grip on the process is stifling, dishonest and total. It wasn’t always that way. Till 1987, the debates were sponsored, for over a decade, by the League of Women Voters.

Why did that change? Why did the League, which ran an independent show, lose control over the debates? Why did it feel compelled to walk out, or was it forced out of them, in 1987? I asked the League and received a prompt emailed reply from Betsy Gardner, its Administrative Coordinator. The party campaigns were exerting huge pressures and control. Whether in choosing a debate format, in picking a ‘moderator,’ or on the questions to be asked. The League also sent us the 1987 statement of its then President, Nancy M. Neuman. That was the period of the George H.W. Bush-Michael Dukakis race.

Ms Neuman’s statement of the time says, among other things: “Between themselves, the campaigns had determined what the television cameras could take pictures of. They had determined how they would select those who would pose questions to their candidates … They had determined that they would pack the hall with their supporters. And they had determined the format. The campaigns’ agreement was a closed-door masterpiece. The agreement was a done deal, they told us. We were supposed to sign it and agree to all of its conditions. If we did not, we were told we would lose the debate … In Winston-Salem, they went so far as to insist on reviewing the moderator’s opening comments.

“It turned out that the League had two choices. We could sign their closed-door agreement and hope the event would rise above their manipulations. Or we could refuse to lend our trusted name to this charade.

“The League of Women Voters is announcing today that we have no intention of becoming an accessory to the hoodwinking of the American public.”

P. SAINATH is the rural affairs editor of The Hindu, where this piece appears, and is the author of Everybody Loves a Good Drought. Sainath is presently in the US teaching for the (Fall) semester. He can be reached at: Sainath@princeton.edu.

P. SAINATH is the rural affairs editor of The Hindu, and is the author of Everybody Loves a Good Drought. He can be reached at: psainath@mtnl.net.in

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