So You Want to Buy a President?

Arlen Specter

Arlen Specter is the Republican US Senator from Pennsylvania and until his withdrawal last November, 
a candidate for his party's Presidential nomination.

Q: This notion, that speech and money are the same thing, what do you think of it?

Specter: I think that it is an erroneous conclusion. There's nothing in the First Amendment that even remotely talks about spending money for political contests, and to say that an individual can spend as much of his or her own money as he or she wants constitutionally without any limitation, I think is just absurd. And the speech of other people who want to contribute to you is muffled because the limit is $1000 under the Federal Election Law.

Q: Do you have some personal experience with this problem?

Specter: I have. I ran for the Senate primary in 1976 against Senator John Heinz. He and I later became very close friends and compatriots. But at that time we were adversaries, and when the campaign started the federal election law said that you could only spend $35,000 if you were running in a Pennsylvania primary. That's about as much as I had. John had a little more. And in the middle of the campaign the Supreme Court said that an individual could spend as much money as he chose, and John did. And my brother, who had a larger bank account than I did, was limited to contributing a thousand dollars.

Q: And how much did John Heinz spend?

Specter: Millions.

Q: Did you go to bed that night thinking, 'Damn,' or did you go to bed thinking, 'Well, this is an erroneous decision of the Court,' or both?

Specter: I went to bed that night thinking I had won. The Associated Press said that I'd won the election at one-thirty. And when the returns came in from western Pennsylvania, John Heinz won a narrow victory. But when I saw the Supreme Court decision in January, I petitioned to intervene and to try to take part in it, because as I read the opinions, it seemed to me that it made no sense to say that there was a constitutional right to spend as much of your money as you wanted to get yourself elected, but everybody else was limited to a thousand dollars.

Q: Would you say that you could buy the Presidency?

Specter: No, it's not possible for me to buy the Presidency. But it may be possible for Steve Forbes to buy the Presidency. He's making a valiant effort. . . .

And when I was running for President a few months ago, in New Hampshire I was on a talk show, an interview show, it was interrupted for a commercial. And there, right in the middle of my important public discourse, appeared Steve Forbes' commercial. I had just been talking about the flat tax, which I have done a ton of work on, and have produced legislation on it, and there Steve Forbes came on with his flat tax. And he came on with so many thirty second sound bite commercials that the people of New Hampshire knew about Forbes' flat tax, didn't know a thing about Arlen Specter's flat tax. And it didn't come from the cerebrum, it came from the pocketbook.

Q: Now, is that the fault of the money or is that the fault of the people watching the TV?

Specter: It's the fault of the system. It's the fault of a system which says a person can spend as much of his/her money as he/she chooses, and Forbes is doing that. And then the system is set in place to provide matching funds for people like me and even Bob Dole. And there are limits as to how much Senator Dole can spend in Iowa or in New Hampshire. And meanwhile, Steve Forbes chooses not to participate, which is his right. And the Supreme Court of the United States says Forbes can spend as much money as he wants. And people have a little disjointed view of who Bob Dole is versus Steve Forbes. And I think that's a bad system, on many counts.

Q: Let me ask you quickly about a number of possible fixes, and just react to them. Suppose we put an absolute limit on private contributions? Suppose we said there could be no private contributions, that all monies going to politicians should come through the government, like the Treasury Department or something, so everything is publicly financed?

Specter: Public financing has a problem, that it's very expensive, and in an era of deficit financing, I have grave reservations about the wisdom of having the taxpayers pay for political campaigns.

Q: Do you think they would? I mean, if it was a voluntary system and you could check off a box?

Specter: If you mean the kind on the tax return, people are turned off. There's a great public disinclination toward politicians. People in government and public life are being kicked around at a high rate of speed.

Q: Let me try a different one. Suppose we change all of these rules except one. Anybody can give any amount of money they want to you or to anybody else running for President, but it must be disclosed promptly.

Specter: I think it's a bad idea to have unlimited funding from individuals, because I think that brings too much influence into the political system, influence by other people's money.

Q: Then let's put a cap on the money, but not a cap of a $1,000 and $5,000 -- let's make it $50,000 or $100,000.

Specter: Well, I wouldn't want to put a limit on as high as $50,000 or even $100,000. I think that if you put much more into the mix than five or $10,000, you start to get too high. And I wouldn't want to make a final judgment on PBS on horseback, but I think a limit of $1,000 has been eroded by inflation and the best of the good government people think that that's too little. So there ought to be a re-evaluation of that. But I wouldn't let people put $100,000 or $250,000. And some people have foundations where that much money has been put in. And there's a very fine line, a lot of times, between these foundations and a foundation activity and what really is political activity. And as I've looked at those, I wouldn't skate on that kind of ice, but many of my colleagues do.

Q: How much money do you think it takes to make a serious run for a nomination for the Presidency, in gross numbers?

Specter: Before the multimillionaires entered the race or billionaires entered the race, I would have said that you could do it on $15 million. But if somebody like Forbes is going to spend 25 at the start and perhaps double that, it's impossible to say what it takes to run. Competitively, you can't run against somebody who has hundreds of millions of dollars and is willing to spend them.

Q: Is Steve Forbes and Ross Perot and Huffington and people of that ilk, is that the inflator here? Or is the inflator mostly media costs, or fashion, like you really have to have this guy working for you or that guy working for you?

Specter: Well, there are a composite of factors. One is, the costs have gone up since the thousand dollar limit was placed in 1974. In 1996 a thousand dollars does not buy nearly as much in 1974. There are more sophisticated techniques which make it more expensive, so that it does cost money to run campaigns. And if you have the wild card of the Supreme Court decision, that a Steve Forbes could spend an unlimited amount of money, then you really can't intelligently or convincingly say what it would cost to run. We really need to revamp the system in a number of particulars, but a key aspect is to modify the Buckley v. Valeo decision, which allows a Forbes to spend as much as he wants. So it could be very, very much.

Q: How much has the fact that you can only get it in $1,000 or $5,000 nibbles affected the amount of time that you had to spend as a money-raiser while you were running?

Specter: Fundraising is very, very time-consuming. In the heart of the effort, I would spend two or three hours a day on the phone raising money.

Q: Did you like doing it, or did you not like doing it?

Specter: I've grown accustomed to its face. If you want to be in politics, if you really want to be in politics, you have to learn to like a lot of things that you don't like. And fund-raising is a necessity and if you want to be in this particular line, you have to learn to accommodate to like fund-raising.

Q: Were there ever moments where you thought if you wanted to raise $500,000 and you had to do it by making 500 calls at $1,000 or you had to do it by making 50 calls for $100,000, wasn't there just a temptation to get that number up there so you could just get it over with?

Specter: Well, when you talk about the onerous aspect of making 500 calls to make $500,000 let me tell you something, you don't get $1,000 from each call, it's a lot tougher than that. So you don't multiply your calls by $1,000.

Q: So, how could you get away with three hours? It sounds to me like this is a nine-hour-a-day occupation, just to keep up. Particularly during the Colin Powell period.

Specter: Oh, there was no point in making calls at that particular time. When General Powell was thinking about it, nobody was responding at the other end of the phone. That happened to be a critical period for me, and there are ways of raising money besides telephoning. Another way of raising money is to have other people telephone for you. And a third way is direct mail. And we had a very effective direct mail campaign underway, Roger Stone devised it, one which was used in prior times very successfully by Ronald Reagan when he was a candidate. And during the very critical six, seven weeks when General Powell was on his tour, instead of envelopes coming back with checks, they came back saying, 'We're waiting for Colin Powell.' And that was a critical time for me, which was a desert, a parched time, no funds, which made it impossible for me to continue.

Q: Well, let me make it easier in one other respect. How about free TV? If Steve Forbes with his flat tax is interrupting your appearance, suppose if he got on, you get on?

Specter: Free television would be wonderful. And then what we'd have to do is get the cooperation of the television networks. There is a theory about the networks being licensed, and they might have some obligation. But it's not too easy, given the First Amendment and property rights, to say to television people, 'You've got to give up television time for candidates without being paid for it.'

Q: The Gallos, who give a lot of money at different points, have benefited from tax legislation which protects their grandchildrens'' inheritance. The Gallos maybe spent two or three million dollars to help achieve this result, but they got a huge multiple of that when this bill was enacted both times, $23, $30 million.

Specter: Your question is superbly naive. The Gallos make a contribution and they get an enormous multiplier by protecting their children on inheritance. They make a contribution of a couple of million dollars and they get an enormous multiplier. Well, how about an aspect of your question as to what the issue was? Perhaps there is some merit in what the Gallos wanted down on inheritance taxes. Every now and then some of us here in Washington, maybe even in the Senate, vote on the merits. So why not incorporate that into your question? The Gallos make a contribution, they get an enormous multiplier on benefits to their heirs, they may have a very meritorious position. Very often you see these charts: X group gave Y dollars to Z office-holder, but there is virtually never on these charts or on these television sound bites an incorporation into the equation of: What's going on here? Did the guy vote that way because it was a good public policy issue? These issues, candidly, are too complicated for sound bites with charts and newspapers.

Q: Even if it were a very just decision, the question arises, could you, had you not been a Senator, if you were just sitting home in Reading, Pennsylvania, or whatever, just reading a book and being a pharmacist, with a grandchild also, could you have gotten the same amount of attention from the United States Congress as that big family in California?

Specter: On my approach, I have open house town meetings. And you say, the guy in Reading? Well, I go to Reading and I have an open house town meeting, and I take questions from people and I sometimes hear them say, 'This is what I'd like to have done for my heirs. And I think it would be very good for the country, as well as for me, because we consider the country, if you did X, Y, Z.' And very frequently I get ideas and bring them back to Washington and push to get them enacted. And there's no contribution from going to an Arlen Specter open house town meeting.

Q: But would a reasonable man, taking a look at America, in the country in which we live, expect that the Gallo's concern for their grandchildren and Mr. Reading's concern for his grandchildren will receive equal treatment in the state capital or the federal capital, that money does make that difference at least?

Specter: It is an unfortunate fact of life that there is more access when people go to fund-raisers. And what some of us do to balance it out as best we can is to have open house town meetings county by county, inviting people in, listening to what they have to say, and considering all the merits, what they would like to see done.

Q: Does political reform, the people who want to change these rules and add more and tighten the restrictions, are they trying to tighten and uplift speech which almost by necessity is going to have to be the kind of speech you hear right now: nasty, simple, loud and expensive?

Specter: When you take a look at the electoral process and its infirmities, we frequently overlook the benefits. And Churchill said it best, when he said democracy is a terrible system, except when compared to all other systems. And there are ways to make improvements and there are ways to make reforms, and we are battling on it. And to try to find those ways to improve the system, there are some specific things we can do.

Q: What are they?

Specter: I undertook a Presidential political campaign. I found it very difficult for many reasons, like money was one of them. But when I finished with the system, I applaud the system. And I said publicly no excuses, no regrets and no complaints. And I'm in the United States Senate and I have some ideas that I've been pushing to improve the system. One thing I addressed in collaboration with Senator Hollings for almost a decade now, is to change the Supreme Court decision which would limit the amount an individual can spend of his or her own money.

Q: Can you do that without a constitutional amendment?

Specter: We have to have a constitutional amendment, but the Hollings-Specter constitutional amendment has been on the books, and I think we have just gotten a very strong ally in Steve Forbes. And if he is successful, I think my efforts to amend the constitution will be successful.

Q: What would you propose?

Specter: I would say that an individual ought to be able to spend more than a contributor, but not a whole lot more. If I had to pick a figure in Pennsylvania in '76 it was $35,000 for a state the size of Pennsylvania. And I think that's probably a figure. Maybe I'd adjust it for inflation, so it would be $70,000 now, or maybe $75,000.

Q: For an individual?

Specter: For an individual of his or her own money. Because you do need the start-up money, so you have to spend some money to get it started.

Q: That was your first. You had one other proposal you were thinking of that had nothing to do with the Court.

Specter: It would be to raise the amount of money which other people can contribute, like my brother or like friends or like supporters. It would not be so much as to be unduly influential. Political action committees can contribute $10,000 to a candidate, $5,000 in the primary, $5,000 in the general. I figured it out in my '86 campaign, it came to .0012 percent.

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