Lawrence Lessig’s Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress—and a Plan to Stop it is reviewed in the current issue of The Washington Monthly by Walter Shapiro, who was until recently Salon.com’s Washington bureau chief. Wittily titled “The Campaign-Industrial Complex,” the review is plainly sympathetic to Lessig’s diagnosis (emphasis added throughout):
Political commercials generally have all the intellectual heft of the Kardashian family, but the enduring problem is not the lack of an ennobling political discourse between sitcoms. Rather, the real crisis facing American politics is what elected officials have to do to raise the money to pay for those ads.
That, roughly, is the theme of Lawrence Lessig’s stirring new book….
Shapiro likes Lessig’s Grant-Franklin plan, too—
Without a doubt, the Lessig plan (which has been carefully designed to pass constitutional muster) would be a vast improvement over the current system—just as high-minded proposals for regulating handguns and curtailing the political power of the NRA would save lives.
— but only in principle:
Alas, we live in the real world, in which new major campaign-reform legislation seems as much a liberal fantasy as effective handgun regulation. When it comes to reforming political finance, the core of the problem is that the same Congress that has prospered from the current system would be called upon to change it.
Shapiro urges us to focus not only on how campaign money is raised, but on how it is spent:
It is a mistake for political reporters to look at campaign fund-raising totals as if they tell the whole story. Not all campaigns are equally parsimonious in how they deploy their fiscal resources; there is, for example, wide variation in how much consultants take home for producing the ads, conducting the polls, plotting overall strategy, and shepherding the big-donor fund-raising. The finances of campaign consultants remain the biggest continuing mystery in politics….
Over the years, I have written several indignant articles about the ways that campaign consultants prosper from the naïveté of candidates and major donors. Much to my surprise in our politics-obsessed culture, these pieces garnered all the reaction of a three-part series on the proper use of the adverb in contemporary Urdu. In hindsight, the problem of overcompensated campaign consultants came across as a victimless crime. After all, who’s going to weep for Hollywood executives, Washington lobbyists, and corporate chieftains whose campaign donations have been squandered? …
In truth, the real victims are not the well-heeled donors but every candidate with a shred of idealism who falls under the sway of his or her campaign consultants…. The most tainted money in politics is not the first million that a candidate raises but the last. The more desperate a candidate, the more willing he is to put ethical beliefs in a blind trust and accept money that comes with wink-and-nod strings attached.
How does this observation translate into a weapon?
Maybe, just maybe, demanding that campaigns publicly release their contractual arrangements with consultants could put the brakes on the current hyperinflation in the cost of running for major public office. The press certainly lacks the power to obtain these records, and campaigns themselves are unlikely to practice voluntary disclosure beyond what is required by the FEC. But there is one group that may have the market power to change the way that campaigns conduct their internal financial business. Wealthy ideological givers in both parties who live outside the Washington lobbying community should have no incentive to see their money blown on overpaid and underperforming political consultants. Such donors would not tolerate this sort of hidden insider dealing when supporting an art museum or a university. Why should they be any less responsible in their political philanthropy?
This analysis proceeds from the assumption that “wealthy ideological givers” care whether their money is well spent by the campaign. That’s highly doubtful—from the donor’s point of view, the money is well spent if it succeeds in rendering the candidate beholden to the donor. The more money the candidate thinks (s)he needs, the more influential the donor who feeds that need.
Shapiro ends his review on about the same level of optimism as Lessig’s book:
Like Lessig, I despair over our current dollar-driven deadlock of democracy. And like Lessig, I may be guilty of clutching at straws in my hopes for even incremental change. But the ultimate responsibility for the current system lies with elected officials from Barack Obama to the Tea Party zealots who dominate the freshman class in Congress.
They are the ones who “approve this message” on shrill, deceitful, and often ineffective campaign spots. They are the ones who have allowed themselves to be convinced that making the moral compromises demanded by the current fund-raising system is their only way to return to office. And too often, they are the ones who have been played for suckers by their campaign consultants. In fact, maybe we can start of a rebellion by major donors and candidates united under the banner “I am not a schnook.”
Donors should persuade candidates that they can get by with less money? One can hardly take that idea seriously (and one suspects Shapiro doesn’t either).