This article appears in the Summer 2015 issue of The American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here.
As we approach 2016, the Republican Party has the biggest field of presidential contenders ever. This may be due to a bumper crop of potential leaders, but the more plausible explanation is money.
Supreme Court decisions have liberated business moguls to invest in politicians, much as they might invest in racehorses, yacht competitions, sports franchises, and, more recently, charter schools. Given the right patron, a remotely plausible politician can become a contender. Scott Walker, as a swing-state governor who faced down public-employee unions, might well have been a strong candidate in any case, but support from the Koch brothers didn’t hurt. And so on down the line, to Ben Carson, Lindsey Graham, Rick Santorum, Mike Huckabee, Carly Fiorina, Ted Cruz, et al.—15 at last count, and growing.
In a sense, this is the reductio ad absurdum of money as democracy. Yet it is something more. The Tea Party phenomenon represents a perverse kind of populism. Bush III is nobody’s idea of a liberal, but the GOP base resents all those establishment connections. Hence, the free-for-all.
You almost have to admire the sheer narcissism and bravado of third- and fourth-tier Republican candidates. This is uncharacteristic of the GOP. Historically, Democrats display more willingness to field and even nominate long shots. There is no recent Republican who vaulted from far back in the field, as Jimmy Carter did in 1976, or even from the middle of the pack, like Michael Dukakis in 1988 and Bill Clinton in 1992. On the Republican side, leading candidates Mitt Romney, both Presidents Bush, Bob Dole, John McCain, and Ronald Reagan captured nomination pretty much as expected.
But the liberation of finance has created a bizarre pluralism of plutocrats. Any number can play; all you need is the money. As Steve Martin memorably put it in his epic bit about how to make a million dollars and not pay any taxes, “First, get a million dollars.”
COULD THIS BACKFIRE? The trend represents a further weakening of the institutional Republican Party at the expense of freelance political investors. Karl Rove, the modern emblem of this shift, has been overtaken by whomever the Koch brothers, Sheldon Adelson, and lesser-known billionaires fancy. It’s tempting to think that all this will be good for Democrats, in two reinforcing respects.
First, until about a decade ago, the Republican National Committee generally had a better technical operation than the Democrats. On the Democratic side, campaign technology—the donor lists, the micro-targeting techniques, and the get-out-the-vote software paid for, in part, by the party—has been treated as the property of the candidate or his operatives, leaving the institutional party with the crumbs. Howard Dean, as party chair after 2004, worked valiantly to build a 50-state Democratic Party with more effective institutional presence. Barack Obama benefited from Dean’s handiwork.
Among both Republicans and Democrats, the emergent politics of donors and super PACs have reinforced the effect of candidate-centered politics in weakening the institutional parties. If the Koch brothers and other dark-money Republican billionaires operate as free spirits at the expense of the RNC, it might help level the playing field.
Another possible silver lining for Democrats is a donor-driven demolition derby on the Republican side—an enervating contest in which the lead shifts and the winner is not known until well into primary season, leaving a residue of disunity and bad feeling, and consuming vast amounts of money. A very large field also smokes out awkward schisms in the GOP. In the wake of the ghastly massacre of nine black parishioners at the Emanuel A.M.E. Church, Republicans were ducking for cover on the subject of guns in church and the Confederate battle flag.
AT BEST, THE FARCE of money driving the fragmentation of the Republican field could provoke a citizen backlash and a serious drive for reform, as it did in the Progressive Era and again after Watergate. But don’t count on any of these outcomes. The Supreme Court shows no sign of remorse. The liberation of money presents a collective action problem for the system. As long as the music is playing and the courts concur, candidates and donors alike get up and dance. Only citizens are excluded.
The money-drenched Republican primary process should play to the strength of Democrats as the party of regular people. Unlike the fragmented GOP, the Democratic field has unified early behind Hillary Clinton. Yet there is pent-up frustration on the part of many Democrats, both about some of Clinton’s policy positions and about her own reliance on big money, some of it with the appearance of conflicts of interest. If Democrats might benefit from a candidate who embodies the revulsion against money dominating politics, Clinton is less than ideal. At best, she will have to do an awkward straddle between the desires of her donors and the mood of the Democratic base. One way out: A President Clinton might appoint Supreme Court justices who would reconsider money-as-speech decisions. For now, the embarrassment of riches is bipartisan.