This entire political era is so awash with corporate funding that no single election or piece of legislation can fix it. That is why we must begin the work of a generation, empowering people through civic education that in the long term will change the American public’s expectation of their political leaders, a process discussed in this ongoing series.
In the first piece, The Bull Moose and the Sneaky Corporate Beast, we looked at the rationale for corporate influence and recognized that whether corporate influence comes in the blunt for of an Exxon commercial or a below the radar donation to the Chamber of Commerce, it is an adversarial force that is not going away.
In the second piece, Sense of Entitlement, we observed another corrosive aspect of today’s political culture, the elected politician’s belief that he or she is a reverent figure, not a public servant, a worldview derived in part from a lavish corporate-funded lifestyle that allows elected politicians the opportunity to avoid their actual constituents as much as possible.
In the third and most recent piece, Politicians Are Crack Fiends for Cash, we assessed the politician’s desperate needs for constant campaign cash, a need that inevitably plays into the hands of cash-rich corporations looking to make a sound investment.
There are plenty of theoretical legislative remedies available to address the problems described above, but the Bull Moose Movement wants to focus on non-legislative remedies that empower citizens, and don’t subject them to the counter-incentivized good will of politicians. In the last piece, we encouraged constituents to demand that their officials not hold political fundraisers during the first year (or first months) of their terms, so that they can focus on legislating. Today’s focus will be on the politician’s constant quest for higher glory.
While it is unclear how many elected officials at one point harbor dreams of becoming president, there is no question that most salivate at the prospect of moving up the ladder- better pay, more perks, and a better corporate escape parachute in the event of political misfortune. This is not inherently wrong; politicians have chosen the profession of politics, and they want promotions in their line of work just like we all do in ours. The problem is that in today’s political culture, the most important criteria in a candidate’s electoral viability is his or her fundraising prowess, incentivizing a pol to fundraise rather than focus on doing his or her job well. A politician elected to a four-year term may want to run for a higher office at the end of those four years. That requires beginning a campaign in earnest two years beforehand. To do so requires serious fundraising in the year leading up that two year stretch. All of a sudden, that pol has thrown away three of the four years the voters elected him for in order to pursue higher office.
Getting politicians on the record that they will commit to serving out their term is surprisingly difficult. Hillary Clinton famously refused to rule out running for president, though in her case the Senate was quite obviously a stepping stone from the beginning. In the case of local politicians, citizens should expect greater humility. In the spring of 2009, I moderated a forum for the candidates running for New York City Public Advocate at Fordham Law School. The position of Public Advocate, while full of potential, had been under-utilized by the incumbent, and a major criteria for the primary electorate was a candidate who would restore some weight to the office. When I asked Mark Green, the presumptive front-runner and eventual loser, whether he would pledge to focus on the office rather than prepare for a 2013 mayoral run, he dismissed my question as “ridiculous”, saying that no candidate should ever have to forswear running for higher office during their term. I respectfully disagree.
Barring an extraordinary circumstance, like an opportunity presented by death or scandal, an elected official cannot do a good job while constantly preparing to run for the next higher office. The amount of time that fundraising and campaigning require causes elected officials to miss legislative votes and focus on publicity stunts rather than draft meaningful reforms. The body of significant work most election-driven pols accomplish is negligible.
As noted in the Sense of Entitlement piece, however, politicians just think they are so invaluable to us members of the public that we would rather have a year and a half of hard work out of Mark Green as Public Advocate than four years from one of his opponents. They don’t realize that taxpayer dollars are paying them to do their job. How would your employer feel if you spent half of your workday going to interviews and searching the web for a new, better job? What if you took off for three weeks of paid leave to look around, explore your options?
I know that despite Mark Green’s arrogant retort, I’ll be asking every politician who asks for my vote how interested they are in doing their job, not using my vote as a stepping stone. I hope for a better day, when all candidates who come before the electorate can brag windily about their actual achievements in office, not hide behind good fundraising numbers they accumulated while they were supposed to be doing their jobs.