One of the most famous aphorisms about the campaign world comes from the late Jess "Big Daddy" Unruh, the legendary Speaker of the California Assembly and longtime chief of the state's Democratic Party: "Money is the mother's milk of politics."
And with an estimated $2 billion in spending flooding into the presidential campaign, there's a fear that the whole process may be swamped in a homogenized tsunami.
So it may be a good time to offer some notions, in the form of questions, that may re-frame the issue.
Is there too much money in the system?
It depends on what you're measuring. If 130 million people vote for president this November, then that $2 billion comes out to less than $20 a vote. It's one reason why columnist George Will is always noting that Americans spend more on pet food, or Halloween candy or some other measure designed to suggest that by comparison, campaign funds are a trivial amount. Now suppose that, as polls indicate, only 5 percent of voters are undecided, and of those, only residents of battleground states really matter. In that case, you're talking about $2 billion designed to reach a few million voters — in which case it would be cheaper for the campaign to simply mail $100 or so to these voters.
Is the question how much is spent, or where it comes from?
In other words, does it matter if $100 million comes from a million contributors giving $100 each, or one person — let's call him Sheldon Adelson — giving $100 million. If you're concerned about a so-called "level playing field," it would seem to make a great deal of difference. But if the Supreme Court's "money is speech" view governs, there may be no Constitutional way for the law to make a distinction.
Did "Citizens United" open the floodgates for rich people?
Rich folks have for decades been able to spend as much money as they wanted on independent efforts in pursuit of their political goals, whether they were liberals like George Soros or conservatives like the Koch Brothers. Citizens United lifted restrictions on corporate and labor union money, but long before that Supreme Court case, independent money was finding its way into the process.
Has any campaign voluntarily limited its spending?
The first campaign to abandon public financing for both its primary and general election campaigns was Barack Obama's in 2008. Why did the campaign do this? Because it realized that between its small-donor efforts and its wealthy, big-money backers, it could vastly outspend John McCain's campaign — which it did. This year it appears the Romney campaign (and its independent supporters) will be able to outspend the incumbent president.
Can the flood of money into politics be limited?
As long as the Supreme Court sees money as the functional equivalent of speech, the answer is "no." Indeed, this Court shows every indication of invalidating most efforts to restrict campaign spending. That's why some reform efforts have begun by attempting to amend the First Amendment to state that Congress shall have the power to regulate campaign money, and that idea gives some civil libertarians pause.