Conservative Campaigns: The Failed Measure of Money

Here are two sentences I never want to hear again:

“I’d vote for that candidate if s/he had more money. But I have to throw my vote to the candidate with a big enough war chest to win.”

Let me be clear:

This post is not about campaign finance reform. Rather, it’s about backward thinking to which we as a society have collectively and repeatedly adhered with extremely poor results. It advocates that we now engage in true leadership by rejecting the myth that money is the best measure of a candidate’s chances of success and veering away from the insidious and widespread damage it has caused. In this arena, as in so many others, it is time to restore principles that will move us in a more productive direction by evaluating candidates and the campaigns they run on far wiser criteria. We must also engage personally on multiple levels to ensure that the right candidates get elected. While it may be inconvenient, frankly, we can no longer expect that someone else will do the hard work for us.

This past week, a U.S. Senate candidate—who shall for now go nameless—was asked honestly by a leader of a chapter of the College Republicans how he would answer the charge that he was business-as-usual. The candidate retorted thus: “It takes money to win a campaign. Period.”

That was the candidate’s sum total response—pun intended: He has money; his opponent in the primary does not. Then, he pretty much walked away from the conversation.

You might think this candidate’s answer was not terribly adequate to the query posed. And, in a way, I would wholeheartedly agree with you. But in another sense, what he said was right on target, quite revealing, and deserving of dissection.

In fact, without even realizing he’d done so, this particular candidate confirmed for his questioner that he WAS, in fact, business-as-usual. He aligned himself perfectly with the overall attitude and approach we’ve both fostered and reinforced as a nation when it comes to political campaigns. That being:

“Money first; principle, character, and substance later—if at all.”

In the campaign arena, we’ve become thoroughly keyed to money. We measure candidates largely by their cash-on-hand. The media seldom bothers even to report on someone running for office until they reach a funding threshold that signals campaign “viability.” And the rest of us mostly wait for the media to tell us who’s out there. Moreover, once the media does start reporting on a candidate, they’re often spitting back whatever information they get from paid campaign personnel. What you might call talking points.

On those occasions when you or I do go looking on our own, we often want to know which candidates can afford the most advertising, since television, particularly in federal level campaigns, is presumed essential to victory. We all want to be on the winning team. And we fairly automatically equate money with victory. As noted above, we have so bought into the myth that campaign funding is the be-all and end-all of viability that we now frequently hesitate to back candidates unless we see that they already have money. We don’t consider contributing unless others have done so first. This mentality is widespread, infecting state and federal GOP officials, rank-and-file party members, the population at large. This despite the fact that it’s an ugly, lazy approach and wholly antithetical to the principles-based thinking of our Founding Fathers.

What do we actually win in framing candidates and campaigns first and foremost in financial terms?

However much we’ve put our trust in it—and those candidates who have more of it—money is hardly the only or even the most accurate harbinger of campaign success. Take an example. Wisconsin’s state GOP has consistently gravitated toward moderate U.S. Senate candidates with large bank accounts. Unfortunately, for all of their money, those candidates could neither earn the trust of the electorate nor compellingly distinguish themselves from their Democrat opponents. And so, these moderate, moneyed candidates have all lost—despite their ability to pay for loads of television advertising and direct mail pieces, etc, etc, etc.

More strangely still, after every one of these losses, the state GOP has returned to the same candidate template. They never stop to consider that in this particular constituency, and against specific opponents, throwing their support to a candidate with less dough and more solid conservative principles might work out better for them. They seem utterly incapable of embracing what is, for them, a counter-intuitive strategy. The familiar enticement of a big bank account undermines them every time, regardless of previous outcomes.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying money is necessarily a bad thing. I’m not even saying that only candidates without money can be principled. Far from it. No, I’m simply insisting that we must at this critical juncture recognize that wealth and/or funding is not a reliable marker of anything at all—and that we should stop using it as one.

Can wealth signify that someone is a savvy businessman? Sure.

Can wealth also potentially disenchant critical voting blocks needed to win an election? Absolutely.

Does wealth necessarily mean that someone will handle taxpayer monies honorably and responsibly? Nope.

Does it necessarily communicate that someone will uphold and defend the United States Constitution, along with our personal liberties? Another definite nope.

When did money ever ensure that someone would be a trustworthy candidate? How has money ever signified that someone would do his or her fiduciary duty? At what point in history has money ever guaranteed principle? In what context has money ever ensured that someone would keep a sworn bond with his constituents?

We all know the answer to these questions. We currently have a Congress filled with very wealthy Americans—and they’re driving us into the ground. Yet, for some reason we persist in tying the question, “Can this candidate win?” first and foremost to finances.

It’s time to jettison money as our primary measure of candidates and the worth and viability of their campaigns. We must begin to use a wiser and more just set of standards.

If we want to expose and correct fraud, waste, and abuse…

If we want to see true accountability from elected officials…

If we want to stop the hemorrhaging of our personal rights and freedoms…

If we want truly to reform our system of taxation…

If we want to eliminate the misuse and abuse of executive, legislative, and judicial power…

If we want to disempower those who would destroy this nation through their own selfishness or wrong-headedness…

…then money must finally move into last place on of our list of concerns.

We also need to be asking ourselves what lengths we personally are willing to go to to obtain the principled, responsible representation we crave but have generally been too lethargic to go after.

Are we as citizens actively seeking candidates who profess originalist constitutional principles? Are we thoroughly investigating not the size of a candidate’s pocketbook or war chest, but rather their personal character—their ability to stand and lead on principle even in the darkest of times and to effectively communicate those principles and reasoning to others? Are we seeking candidates out to ask them hard questions, refusing to be content with the pat answers and positions expressed in campaign literature and television ads? Are we, when we find the right candidates, taking it upon ourselves to ask, “Can I write you a check?” AND (that’s right AND, not OR) “How else can I help you to get elected?” Are we using our own creativity to get the word out about good candidates? Are we helping those individuals think of new and inexpensive ways to get their message widely distributed when and where loads of cash is not available?

In this country we have learned to think outside of the box in so many ways. It is time to apply our ingenuity and, quite frankly, our vigilance, to this problem.

[As an aside, there’s another good reason to move in this direction. In a time of economic crisis, why wouldn’t we work keep campaign costs as low as possible. And why wouldn’t we respect and trust candidates all the more for their own efforts to do so in such challenging times?  Expensive isn’t always better or more effective. Like I said, creativity can work wonders.]

It’s not good enough any longer to let someone else’s money work. It’s when WE find a good candidate and invest our own hard-earned money and sweat equity that we have a real stake in the game.

That is the only path out of the valley.

The question is: Will we have the courage to take it? It is indeed courage that is required.

We have used money as our fallback for so long that many are afraid to relinquish it as the poor measure that it is. But these are extraordinary times. We cannot advance in this fight unless we are willing to leave failure behind and pursue success by an unfamiliar but ultimately surer course.

Men and women of principle are out there. Not all of them have money. Time is running out. Will we get behind them with everything we have and say no others who fit the “traditional mold” but who, by the better standards of character and principle, should not make the cut?

Let’s finally stop listening to the GOP and the media who have for so long helped to propagate such misguided thinking on candidates and campaigns. Heck, not even endorsements can necessarily be trusted these days since so many of them are awarded based on the same toxic system from which we must now divorce ourselves.

Look closely at the actual candidates yourself. Listen to what they’re saying. Find out what where they truly stand in relationship to the Constitution. Do they know that document backward and forward? Does it matter to them? Are they in love with it? Will they lead and vote in relationship to it? Will they stand for it when everyone else forgets?

Ask and answer those questions.

Then make your choice and back the candidates that measure up with everything you’ve got.

We have run out of election cycles to learn this lesson.

The time is now.