Dole or Clinton, the dollar will win

Americans are switching off from a disreputable electoral system dominated by big money and TV commercials

The US Election Games begin this week with the first of the qualifying heats at the Republican Party Convention in San Diego. The second heat, the Democratic Party Convention, takes place in a fortnight in Chicago.

We already know that the winner of the first will be Bob Dole, the second, Bill Clinton. As for the presidential gold medal race, scheduled for Guy Fawkes Day, the outcome appears to be as predictable as the Olympic basketball competition was in Atlanta. The US "Dream Team" beat Croatia in the final by 26 points, a shade more than the margin separating Mr Clinton from Mr Dole in the latest opinion polls.

The reasons why this year's election is such a mismatch are evident enough. Mr Clinton is a made-for-TV candidate. Every cell in his body yearns for re-election. Mr Dole is a lame actor whose hunger, it sometimes seems, has been sated by his victory in the Republican primaries. Almost as if, after 36 years in national politics, securing his party's ultimate gesture of approval were the prize he most desired.

The presidential race is not, however, the only event in the Election Games. It is the one the world will be watching, but on 5 November Americans will also be casting their votes for 435 seats in the House of Representatives and 35 in the Senate. As things stand today, suspense resides less in the outcome of the presidential election than in whether the Democrats recapture the House from Newt Gingrich's triumphant 1994 revolutionaries.

Why then do Americans seem so uninterested? Chiefly because of the perception that politics has been hijacked by big money and cheapened by television. And, while money and television consume Americans' everyday lives, the sentiment in a country founded by George Washington and Thomas Jefferson is that politics should be conducted more nobly.

The candidates for the White House and the two houses of Congress will be spending at least $2bn between them on their campaigns. Two-thirds of that money, an amount equivalent to the 1995 Gross Domestic Product of Mozambique, will go into television advertising.

Behind these figures lies the dominant truth of American politics today: the public has lost faith in government and the people who run it. Travel around America, talk to people and they will tell you: money subverts American democracy; television - where politicians sell their candidacies with the market-tested professionalism that McDonald's sells hamburgers - demeans it. You will find, as Bill Greider, author and political columnist of Rolling Stone magazine, has described it, that the exchange between office-seeking politicians and public has degenerated into "mutual contempt".

National surveys support local impressions. A poll conducted last summer by an organisation called Americans Talk Issues found, among other things, that 88 per cent of Americans believe government leaders tell them what they think will get them elected, not what they are really thinking; and that 81 per cent believe government tax policies help large corporations and the wealthy more than they help ordinary people. A poll released two weeks ago by USA Today showed that 83 per cent of voters believed Congress should make major changes to the way political campaigns are financed; but only 30 per cent believed that it would.

Other symptoms of discontent include the emergence of the right-wing militias, whose soul- mates carried out the Oklahoma bombing last year; the fundamentalists of the Christian Coalition, who hunger to regain paradise by passing the Ten Commandments into law; the 47 members of Congress (nearly 10 per cent of the total in both houses) who have announced they will not be seeking re-election; the refusal of Colin Powell, the most popular man in America, to sully his good name in pursuit of the highest office in the land.

Look also at three of the alternative aspirants for the US presidency. On the face of it they occupy radically different political positions. Pat Buchanan on the rabid right; Ross Perot in the quirky middle; Ralph Nader on the crusading left. Closer examination reveals that each is driven by a belief that American politics is rotten at the core. Each believes that money has replaced the vote as the currency of democracy.

Mary McGrory, the Pulitzer prize-winning columnist for the Washington Post who has spent 40 years watching US politics from the inside, has described "money in politics" as "the flaming scandal of our national lives". Noting that candidates spent two-thirds of their money on television time, she observed: "They spend probably two-thirds of their time on their knees to contributors who, one way or another, will want something back."

No one, however, is suggesting that what the candidates are doing is illegal. The flaming scandal is that corruption in American politics has become institutionalised. As the New York Times put it in a recent editorial: "The nation faces yet another presidential election with no recorded improvement in a corrupt system that elevates the voice of wealthy special interests over that of the average voter."

The most recent recorded attempt at an improvement was more than 20 years ago when, in response to Watergate, legislation was passed designed to minimise the influence of money in politics. A ceiling was imposed on the amount an individual could donate to any one electoral candidate. But lawyers discovered a loophole whereby special interests were able to channel unlimited amounts of money to candidates in the guise of funds for what they euphemistically call party-building activities. "Soft money", as critics call it, is supposed to go in theory to a political party - for campaigns to persuade people to vote, for example - but in reality the donors know their contributions go to specific candidates, from whom they in turn exact their pound of legislative flesh.

Soft money donations - from Boeing to BP, Philip Morris tobacco to the National Association of Travel Agents - rose to $63.8m in 1995 from $26.3m in 1991, the year before the last presidential election. As the idea takes hold among more and more powerful sectors of the economy that money buys political favour, so the number of lawyers and lobbyists in Washington has steadily increased. Reporters in Congress were shocked last year - though they should have known better - to discover that lobbyists were actually writing some of the legislation proposed by Newt Gingrich's Republican revolutionaries, whose rise to power in the House of Representatives in 1994 owed hugely to corporate campaign money.

Both main parties are equally guilty of selling their political influence to the highest bidder, but it is Mr Dole who has been caught in the full public glare with his nose in the trough. The tobacco industry poured $3.5m into the Republican coffers in 1995 in response to a White House crusade to curtail cigarette smoking among teenagers. Mr Dole himself has received, at the latest count, $975,149 from Philip Morris.

Last month Mr Dole, thus compromised, got himself into an embarrassing tangle when asked whether he thought cigarettes were addictive. He was damned whatever he said. If he said yes he risked losing television-advertising money from the tobacco people; if he said no he would upset many voters. He said not necessarily, but found himself so wrapped up in knots that when a famously sweet-natured morning television presenter on NBC suggested he might have been influenced in his judgement by his tobacco sponsors, he did what he has battled to avoid doing all through the campaign. He lost his temper, accusing his interviewer of pandering to "liberal media opinion".

The lesson was not lost on viewers that it was Mr Dole, the archetypal Washington politician, who was doing the pandering. Hence the cynicism. Hence the reason that in presidential elections only half of eligible adults turn out to vote, in congressional elections a third. The figures might be even lower if more people knew how many corporations gave money not just to one party but to both. Last year more than 300 donors - mostly giant enterprises such as Nabisco, Chevron and AT&T - gave soft money to both the Republican and the Democratic parties. It is a practice so crassly bereft of principle that the only possible result, as Ralph Nader has observed, is to "breed cynicism that these parties are really one corporate party with two heads wearing slightly different make-up". Little wonder that, when it comes to policy, there is so little to choose between Mr Dole and Mr Clinton; that during the last decade, according to well- documented research, 99 per cent of the new wealth generated in America has ended up in the hands of the richest 20 per cent of the population.

Not all politicians in Washington play the game gladly. Tim Wirth, now Undersecretary of State for Global Affairs, quit the Senate in 1992. As he said at the time, politics "has made me a person I don't like".

"All the time it took to raise funds was time not spent talking with constituents, not tending to legislative business and not actually campaigning," said Mr Wirth, who is a Democrat. "Unhappily, the first loyalty of any candidate is too often to self and re-election, rather than to any broad political organisation or community."

John McCain, a Republican senator from Arizona, remains in Congress but feels trapped by the system. At a press conference in Washington four months ago he recommended a partial solution: the US should adopt the British model and provide free air time for election advertising. "The system as it exists today," said Mr McCain, "is not satisfactory to the overwhelming majority of the American people."

If a critical mass of members of congress has not emerged to support Mr McCain, who is trying with little success thus far to introduce a campaign finance reform bill, it is because most have found that incumbency carries with it one great benefit: it is less difficult to raise election funds when you already hold power than when you do not. Though even then, it is never easy. The calculation is that in order to win re-election a senator must raise $12,000 a week during his or her six-year term, a House of Representatives member $2,800 a week.

The further you go from Washington, the easier it is to see the moral bankruptcy of the system. An election candidate who rejoices in the name Charles "Lefty" Morris will be running as a Democrat this November for a congressional seat in a vast rural district south of Austin, the capital of Texas. Mr Morris, a soft-spoken lawyer whose campaign slogan is "Lefty is Right", said his platform would be a simple one: "We can't solve any of the pressing problems of this country - be they health care, or race relations, or the falling purchasing power of the middle class - until you take the political money, and the lobbyists employed by the big money, out of the picture."

His Republican opponent will have far more funds at his disposal but Mr Morris believes that though his message may not be as loud, it will have more resonance. "It's not a party problem. It's a problem of the political structures of this country. Both parties are equally beholden to the special interests; the same money goes to both. The net result is that the vote loses its value and (imagine what our Founding Fathers would have said!) there is no freedom of speech in this country, because to communicate your political views effectively costs money, and only the few can afford to pay the television rates."

Mr Morris, a proud Texan and an even prouder American, then said a terrible thing. Terrible because in better, less deluded times it would have been deemed heretical. Yet brave, coming from a politician running for office, and reflective of the public mood. "America," he said, almost in a whisper, "is embroiled in its own deterioration. America is no longer great."

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