Barack Obama is undeniably a political phenomenon (after all, we put him on the cover of the magazine). One of the most remarkable qualities of his presidential campaign has been his success at fundraising. It was just announced on the campaign website that Obama-Biden raised a record US$66 million in August alone, far outstripping any campaign fundraising push in history. For glum Democrats who have spent the last few weeks watching Sarah Palin strip away their lead in the polls like so many strips from a moose carcass, this is a welcome boost to morale.
But think about that number. American election costs have been spiralling upward for years, each presidential campaign costing exponentially more than the one that came before it. In 2004, the Democrats and Republicans spent about $600 million combined on radio and TV advertising, three times the amount they spent in 2000; according to the U.S. Federal Elections Commission, the parties had already spent a combined US$1.024 billion by the end of July. (Note that those expenditures were by all presidential primary candidates combined, not just Obama and McCain). It’s a lot of money. Too much.
How can an electoral system so outrageously costly ever hope to remain untainted by political favours, unrealistic promises, and toxic negative ads? The answer is it can’t, and it isn’t. Barack Obama’s record-breaking fundraising is impressive, no doubt, and I don’t think you can fault him for fundraising the amounts that he needs to keep campaigning. But the war chest of cash it takes in 2008 to run for president pretty much ensures that corruption, backscratching, and graft will creep in, and while everyone with the right connections is getting rich, the democratic process itself just gets poorer. Serious campaign finance reform, reasonable spending limits, and the abolishment of the wretched Political Action Committees (that have brought political advertising in the U.S. to such a new and hideous low) must be enacted. And it should happen before 2012 rolls around — with an even bigger price tag.