Despite its protestations to the contrary, the market strongly indicates that the news-buying American public wants political reporters to focus more on the campaign horse race than on policy specifics. If you take the number of stories written this month about the Congressional GOP’s budget ideas and compare it to the number written about Hillary Clinton’s emails and 2016, for example, it’s easy to see the difference. You can chalk it up to a grand media conspiracy to keep the public distracted, I guess. A genuine taste among the public for journalism that sees politics as sports, though, strikes me as a more likely explanation.
Don’t get me wrong; I find the horse race approach to political reporting as tedious and infantilizing as the next blogger. But as economic inequality and campaign finance deregulation continue to turn the U.S. political system into even more of a plutocracy than it was already, I’m beginning to wonder if the horse race approach is not ultimately more honest, and more reflective of the political process as it actually exists — at least when it comes to the campaign for president. I’d be lying if I said the prospect of seeing the names “Clinton” and “Bush” on the ballot yet again didn’t have something to do with it. Yet even if the respective frontrunners weren’t so familiar, the problem would be fundamentally the same.
A darkly comic new report from the Washington Post helps explain why. The gist of the piece is that presidential candidates in post-Citizens United America have no use for the kind of fundraisers and “bundlers” who, until recently, were made to feel like essential cogs in the campaign machine. Not because politicians now worry about being seen as in the wealthy’s pocket. On the contrary, the reason these bundlers no longer receive the kind of pampering they used to is because they’re no longer necessary. You don’t need a bundler from the 1 percent so long as your super PAC is awash in cash from a billionaire. In other words, the 1 percent isn’t cool anymore; it’s now the .01 or .001 percent that really matters.
“They are only going to people who are multi-multi-millionaires and billionaires and raising big money first,” Terry Neese, a Republican businesswoman from Oklahoma City, complained to the Post. Around this time in 2011, Neese complained, she was “hearing from everyone and meeting with everyone.” Nowadays, however, she’s found herself to be deemed unworthy of even a perfunctory amount of attention. And it’s not just her, either: “Most of the people I talk to are kind of rolling their eyes,” she added. Because in the minds of Jeb Bush and his competitors, these lowly millionaires — whose friends tend to be other lowly millionaires — simply don’t count.
According to Kenneth Kies, a D.C. lobbyist who spoke with the Post, the abandonment Neese is feeling is not all in her head. “A couple presidential elections ago,” he explained, “somebody who had raised, say, $100,000 for a candidate was viewed as a fairly valuable asset.” But $100,000 “looks like peanuts” in the present climate, he said. In a world where Jeb Bush is literally asking his supporters in the .01 and .001 percent not to send him checks in excess of $1 million — he worries that he’ll be seen “in their debt” — a pittance like $100,000 or $200,000 or, hell, anything short of half-a-million just won’t cut it.
“We just don’t count anymore,” one “dispirited executive” lamented, according to the Post, while speaking to a bundler from his yacht. In the simpler, kinder days of the past, one ex-fundraiser for Mitt Romney said, “Bundlers felt they were part of the process and made a difference, and therefore were delighted to participate. But when you look at super PAC money and the large donations that we’re seeing,” she continued, with a complete and total lack of self-awareness, “the regular bundlers feel a little disenfranchised.” The 99.99 percent — they’re just like us!
Needless to say, anyone who finds the current state of American democracy to be disgraceful will find much schadenfreude to wring from the article. My favorite moment, for what it’s worth, is probably when a Boston real estate mogul says he’ll never give money to super PACs, because they’re “corrosive on our democracy.” (Talk about a man bursting with civic spirit!) Admittedly, one former Bush bundler’s mewling that they “may not even get a ticket” to the next Republican National Convention despite spending the last one “sitting in a box,” is a close second.
But here’s the thing about schadenfreude: However fun it may be, it’s the kind of solace you take when you’ve basically got nothing else. It reminds me, in fact, of how I’ve felt as a Philadelphia Eagles fan while watching the Dallas Cowboys during one of the many seasons in which they fell short of expectations. Sure, there’s a (sadistic) pleasure in watching the hope drain from their fans’ faces. But once the final whistle blows and everyone heads for the exists, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones is still sitting there in his premium box seats: still-rich, still-powerful and essentially unaffected.