TOPICS > Politics

Money Talks

February 12, 1996 at 12:00 AM EST


JIM LEHRER: We go first tonight to money and politics, a fitting subject for this Iowa caucus night. Millions of dollars, as well as campaign hours, have been spent in Iowa, all aimed at the results that will come from the more than 2,000 precinct caucuses being held there tonight. Preliminary tallies show that more money has already been spent this primary season than ever before.

The Federal Election Commission reported the five Republicans eligible for federal matching funds had spent over $63 million just by the end of last year. Steve Forbes is spending his own money so he does not have to file with the FEC. But “USA Today” estimated that his advertising buys alone have already cost him $12.5 million. And it isn’t only Republicans spending money. Even with no primary challenger, President Clinton has already spent over $12 million on his 1996 campaign.

Now, an historical perspective on money and politics. It comes from three NewsHour regulars: Presidential Historians Michael Beschloss and Doris Kearns Goodwin, and Journalist and Author Haynes Johnson. They are joined tonight by David Mason, vice president of government relations at the Heritage Foundation. Haynes, has money always been as important in presidential elections as it is this time?

HAYNES JOHNSON, Author/Journalist: It’s always been as important in our politics. Never what it is now. Jim, I have a passion for historical prints, and years ago, I bought an original Thomas Nast cartoon in the 1870’s, and it shows a venal politician with dollar signs all over his vest standing on a bag of cash and so forth. That’s the old idea of money and politics, you buy elections. And we’ve seen it year after year, but now the fact that we’re talking through that camera tonight–

JIM LEHRER: It changed it all, didn’t it?

MR. JOHNSON: It’s changed it. The cost of campaigning, the length of it, look, we’re talking about not a primary tonight. We’re talking about a straw, a caucus vote, and not a delegate will be selected tonight, and already 63, 40, whatever the million–it doesn’t matter–and the cost of pouring that money electronically into this army of people that are also producing this industry of politics is unprecedented, and each time it gets more and more and more and each time we say we’re going to reform it and stop it.

JIM LEHRER: So it really began then in the 60’s, the big spending, is that right, Michael?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, Presidential Historian: It sure did, and it came at the same time as the decline–

JIM LEHRER: Television, because that’s what television started getting–

MR. BESCHLOSS: Absolutely. And television really took the place in many ways of the political parties. In the 19th century, in the early part of this century, there was only really so much that money could buy. The main way that a voter found out about a candidate was from his or her precinct captain or perhaps from the newspaper, other ways, certainly through the political party’s structure, mainly, and therefore, if you had an enormous edge in money, it couldn’t buy you the kind of advantage that money now buys today because, as Haynes said, television is so important in shaping the voters’ image of a candidate that if you have a lot more money than your opponent, it does give you a very big advantage.

JIM LEHRER: So–but where was all that money going in the Thomas Nast days, Doris? I mean, who was getting that money? What were they talking about in those times? They were going to the small group of political bosses, is that–

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN, Presidential Historian: Well, yes. I think the big bosses got a lot of that money directly. I think it was really cash. I mean, earlier in the early days–

JIM LEHRER: Cash for votes you mean?

MS. GOODWIN: Cash for votes, or cash to pay people to be floaters, as they called, to vote repeatedly and go back over and over again. So it was much more blatant in the early days, but I think what’s different now is that once John Kennedy’s election took place in 1960 where you had a confluence of a primary beginning to be important, that was the first really important primary race, and you had television coming into its play–

JIM LEHRER: Just remind people who were not around then that it was kind of–wasn’t it the West Virginia primary that really, really made primaries what they are today in many ways, because that’s when he became a viable candidate for President?

MS. GOODWIN: In some ways, he forced the convention people to have to put him into the nomination. He wasn’t the choice of the bosses in 1960, but he went out and won those primaries and forced himself on them. And there you saw the role of money. I mean, poor Hubert Humphrey was traveling around West Virginia in a bus that would break down every now and then, whereas Kennedy had his Convair comfortably custom-fitted for himself. Humphrey had to go into debt in West Virginia, so when a candidate starts worrying about money, whereas the other one knows he’s got unlimited funds, all of which came together in 1960, so I would say that that’s the modern moment. Ever since then everything has just escalated beyond imagining, so we’re almost in a different modern era now, but that was the beginning of the end in some ways.

JIM LEHRER: David Mason, the conventional wisdom is a lot of money equal sign evil in politics. Do you see the equation that way?

DAVID MASON, Heritage Foundation: I don’t see it at all. The right money has increased in significance in Presidential campaigns in recent years, but we’ve got to put it in perspective. For all, for instance, the congressional campaigns last year, $725 million was spent. Automobile advertising, $3 billion. It depends a lot on whether you think what kind of automobile you buy is important and than who you elect to political office. The fact of the matter is that modern communications through television cost a lot of money and we shouldn’t be surprised that politicians are competing with one another to amass the resources to tell their story.

JIM LEHRER: And nothing wrong with that?

MR. MASON: Nothing wrong with that, to my mind, as long as it’s disclosed. People do have a right to know who’s funding the campaigns, where the money comes from, but beyond that, if that–if voters want to make that an issue, that’s fine, but why the amount of money per se should be a concern I don’t see.

JIM LEHRER: So when the Haynes Johnsons of this world view this with alarm–

MR. JOHNSON: Catastrophe. Calamity.

JIM LEHRER: Calamity.

JIM LEHRER: What’s the evil here, Haynes?

MR. JOHNSON: If you believe that the democratic process is supposed to be that all of us can rise up to be heard in this country to have our voice and message heard and be President of the United States, we all have our little soap box, it means unless you have money, you can’t make it today. You’ve got to raise vast sums to be competitive. That’s the problem. It’s the being competitive on a race that is just vastly expensive. The ordinary person can’t possibly do it. That’s why Steve Forbes, all the things you’re watching now, it’s because he’s buying or trying to buy through his own money over any limits because it is his personal money to do so. It makes a difference.

MR. MASON: Well, Forbes is a great example, but a lot of people want to limit how you raise money as a way of equalizing that. I don’t think that’s going to work. We have this huge loophole called the First Amendment. As long as that’s there, Steve Forbes or Ross Perot or anybody else who wants to spend his own money is going to be able to.

MS. GOODWIN: But you see, I think–

MR. MASON: And the government says he can’t give that to Jack Kemp. If those regulations hadn’t been there, Steve Forbes wouldn’t be a candidate. He’d have given his money to Kemp or to somebody else.

JIM LEHRER: He’d have given his money to Kemp or somebody else.

MR. MASON: And he’d have probably spent less money because Kemp wouldn’t have had to become known, and we’d have had a better campaign, a cleaner campaign, and we wouldn’t have had someone running in part because he had the personal resources to do it.


MS. GOODWIN: I think the shape of the campaign is completely shaped by the request for money. I mean, the candidates have to spend so much of their time begging, groveling for money, which undoes part of their dignity. They have to spend time doing that, rather than talking to voters. I mean, are campaigns to the extent that they’ve become media campaigns?

JIM LEHRER: Well, don’t they talk to the voters when they ask for money?

MS. GOODWIN: They do. (laughing)

JIM LEHRER: No, but I mean, isn’t that part of the process?

MS. GOODWIN: Yes, but how many voters? They’re not talking to the ordinary voter, right?


MS. GOODWIN: The middle class Americans are not the main contributors to the big money that the candidates get, and as a result, it skews who they concern themselves with. They’re beholden to these people. It used to be that a campaign meant that you went around the country, you exposed yourself to people, and you learned about the country. When Truman was on his train in 1948, he got a feeling for people’s feelings. Now, after Iowa’s over and after New Hampshire is over, they are retail politics still, thank God, after that, it’s a media campaign. They sit in a place. They might as well sit here and have a back drop of Texas and California behind them because all they’re doing is protecting a media campaign financed by money. On the contrary, they’re not learning about the country anymore.


MR. BESCHLOSS: I think there’s a real problem also of equality of access, and this brings up the dreaded subject of Buckley versus Vallejo in January of 1976, said that a candidate can spend as much of his or her own money as that candidate would like to do, and the result is that it causes a situation–we saw it with Ross Perot in 1992–we’re seeing it with Steve Forbes right now–where a candidate not only has hugely more resources to spend on television, which is so much more important than many of the other channels, but also a situation–and I don’t mean to single out Steve Forbes, but this is an example–he has been able to buy up television time in early states in a way that has prevented some of the other candidates from buying time themselves because the time has already been reserved.

JIM LEHRER: But, wait, let me ask this question, Haynes. It’s all well and good to say it’s terrible, the money part of it. Let me play devil’s advocate. Who, the people who were watching these commercials and having their opinions shaped that way by all this, I mean, isn’t–doesn’t the public have a–

MR. JOHNSON: Absolutely.

JIM LEHRER: –villainous role to play in all of this?

MR. JOHNSON: Of course. In the end, it all comes down to the public being able to sift through advertising, a barrage of material, negative campaigns. We now hear today poll pushing, pushing polls.

JIM LEHRER: Explain what that is.

MR. JOHNSON: Well, you have–

JIM LEHRER: For the non-professionals watching us.

MR. JOHNSON: You have a focus group and you call up someone and you say, I want to find out how you would feel about Jim Lehrer as President? Do you think Jim Lehrer is a terrible guy? Would you vote for him? And they say, no, if I knew he was a terrible guy I wouldn’t vote for him. So then they use this–

JIM LEHRER: As a push, and you push him into a position.

MR. JOHNSON: You’re pushing them into a position that, that really–

JIM LEHRER: It’s a phony poll.

MR. JOHNSON: It’s a phony poll, that’s right.

JIM LEHRER: Phony poll, and it’s now considered a legitimate form of–


JIM LEHRER: –politics, is it not, David?

MR. MASON: Well, the first questions are used in polling to try to convince voters. In fact, that was what Forbes was complaining about in Iowa. It wasn’t to try to put out a poll in the media to show that someone was ahead but rather to call everybody they could call and as Haynes pointed out, ask a sort of “Did you know he beat his wife” question to try to convince people to change their minds.

JIM LEHRER: What about the point that a lot of people make, and here again I’m playing devil’s advocate here, that nobody would have cared or paid any attention to Ross Perot, or cared or paid any attention to Steve Forbes if they hadn’t had these millions of dollars of their own, and they spent them?

MR. MASON: You’re absolutely right, but the big story of big money in politics is that these people make a big splash and then sink like a rock. In fact, Perot didn’t get very far. Forbes probably isn’t going to win the nomination. Michael Huffington, who is the other big example, couldn’t win. Money can buy you competition but it–

MS. GOODWIN: I mean, it is true–

MR. MASON: –can’t win an election.

MS. GOODWIN: It is true that the graveyards of politics are filled with some of these rich people who have not made it. Look at Connolly. He spent $12 million and got one delegate.

MR. BESCHLOSS: All true, but–

MS. GOODWIN: But, nonetheless, he has shaped this political process, Steve Forbes has. He would not have been, in my judgment, a visible national recognized figure if he hadn’t bought his visibility by saturating television. And once you do that, you become almost a celebrity. There’s an aura attached to you. Then people come to your rallies. He would have been sitting there alone.

JIM LEHRER: Because you spend all the money and because–

MS. GOODWIN: It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.

JIM LEHRER: Michael.

MR. BESCHLOSS: And Ross Perot, I mean, I think perhaps we tend to see him as less successful than he really was. For a couple of months in 1992, if the election could have been held, Ross Perot would have been President of the United States, and he would have been President–

JIM LEHRER: Shields believes that would have happened if he hadn’t had –

MR. BESCHLOSS: Absolutely.

MS. GOODWIN: If he hadn’t gotten out and come back.

MR. BESCHLOSS: Absolutely. And it would have happened without the kind of scrutiny that we later got and we’ve got a very dangerous system now, because you can be in a situation where someone starts spending money in a very big way at the beginning of the election year, is able to get a very prime position in these early primaries and caucuses, could get a lock on the nomination, and only later do we find out things that–

JIM LEHRER: All right.

MR. BESCHLOSS: –otherwise might make people very skeptical.

JIM LEHRER: I’ll play the devil’s advocate again on another thing. Yes, but Steve Forbes with his money put on the, on the agenda table flat tax, opened up a lot of issues that wouldn’t have otherwise gotten opened up because it was a kind of close race a lot of people said, it was a foregone deal. Suddenly this guy comes out of nowhere; people have to pay attention to him; and he’s an outsider. That appeals to the way people think.

MR. JOHNSON: That’s fine. I mean, anything that contributes to the democratic dialogue is a good thing. The problem with money is that it skews it in favor of those who have the most who can get their message, good or bad, over. You see the negatives come along with that, and the Congress, David was talking about the Congress, and advertising cars. Every week in this Congress people don’t vote on Mondays and Fridays. You know why? Because they’re going home raising money, so they can win for election. It skews the process to a point they’re beholden to the money purse.

MR. MASON: The process is skewed but I want to point out the reason is that government regulation has already been imposed, limiting campaign donations to $1,000. That’s a lot to the average voter. It’s not very much when you’re talking about running a political campaign. Anyone who’s ever raised money understands you have to go for big dollar contributions to raise large amounts. And so politicians are out raising lots of money, talking to fund-raisers and so on, because they’ve got to raise the money in relatively small amounts. In the Presidential race, it’s got to get down below $250. And so in fact, if we remove some of the government regulations that are there now, politicians would spend less time raising money and the financial advantages that a Bob Dole built up for instance after years and years and years of fund-raising would be less overwhelming, and I think, frankly, in the end, though it’s counter-intuitive, you would see less spending on campaigns because it would be less of a factor in the competition.

JIM LEHRER: I’m always asking you all to look back. Let me look forward. Doris, if you were God, what would you do to change the system?

MS. GOODWIN: Well, the most important thing would be to convince the American public that the system needs changing. We’ve got lots of things in Congress to change this system. There’s talk about free television time which I think would be critical. Britain does that.

JIM LEHRER: Make a point here. A former colleague of yours at the “Washington Post,” Paul Taylor, a political reporter, was offered or was said by the “Washington Post” come back and cover this campaign, and he decided, no, he’s taken a leave to just push for free television time for political candidates.

MS. GOODWIN: I think that’s obviously going to change a lot if that happens. In Britain, they also cover the costs of election day so that all that canvassing and making sure people get to the polls is covered by the government. They also have free mailings. I think we’ve got to think in those terms, but until the American public realizes that there’s a direct link between money and the actual legislative process, and it changes their lives, because the people they vote into office are worried about these money people all the time. Legislation is distorted, regulations aren’t done, judgeships are bought, ambassadorships are bought, somehow these connections are made, and it seems like a process, a good government issue. We’ve got to make it sexy somehow.

JIM LEHRER: What is your good government solution, Mr. Beschloss?

MR. BESCHLOSS: Well, I support what Doris said, and I think another thing, if I had just one choice, would be to find some way to restrict the ability of people to spend these huge amounts of money in their own Presidential campaign.

JIM LEHRER: Their own money.

MR. BESCHLOSS: As you know, there’s a suggestion for a constitutional amendment by Senators Bradley and Hollings. I hope it doesn’t take that, but if it does, I would be supportive of it.


MR. JOHNSON: I think the free election time on television for candidates, I’ve supported for 20 years, made speeches, that’s how much influence we have here on this program and other places. But secondly, also, I think it’s shortening the length of the process.

MS. GOODWIN: Oh, bravo.

MR. JOHNSON: If you talk about Jack Kennedy in 1960 with 13 primaries, we all thought it was the end of the democratic–now, it’s 50, and it’s two years long, and people were running in New Hampshire three years ago before even a vote was cast, and I think if we could constrict the time, free up the process, we’d be a lot better off.

JIM LEHRER: You would, if you could wave the wand, you would make all television–I mean, you would make television time free, on the networks, cable, everybody who has a television–access to a TV set?

MR. JOHNSON: Jim, they’re the public airwaves. We license them.


MR. JOHNSON: We own them.

JIM LEHRER: And then would you at the same time then prohibit paid advertising?



MR. JOHNSON: Absolutely not. That is a free, free press, free amendment issue.

JIM LEHRER: Do you have a wand, and if you did, sir, how would you wave it?

MR. MASON: I’d get the government out of politics. The difference between me and the other panelists here is they want the government in Washington to come in and micromanage and tell politicians and American citizens and television networks and everybody else how they can run campaigns. I don’t think that’s going to work. I think that’s going to create more problems than simply letting us have a good free-for-all and let the voters sort it out.

JIM LEHRER: But what about–what happens then? Doesn’t the power go to the people with the money under a laissez-faire approach?

MR. MASON: I think people, as long as the money is disclosed, who gave how much, who they are, and what they’re interested in is disclosed, then people are going to make rational judgments.

JIM LEHRER: And that would prevent what Doris is worried about? If I’m with a certain industry and you’re a candidate for whatever, and I give you money and then it’s disclosed, that keeps the heat on you from doing what I want you to do.

MR. MASON: It’s going to become an issue.

MS. GOODWIN: I don’t think that’ll be protection enough because there are so many ways you can give money without disclosing your actual gift by giving it to your sister, your brother, your aunt, your uncle, to give to–making PAC committees, making soft money. Until we make it clear that you’re disclosed, I wouldn’t accept that.

JIM LEHRER: Well, we worked this out tonight.


JIM LEHRER: Thank you all very much.