The rise of the $2 billion presidency

At a time when a candidate for president in 2008 must raise $100 million before the end of 2007—that means raising $273,972 a day, Saturdays and Sundays included—to be taken seriously by the political cognoscenti, the title of a forthcoming book on how presidential campaigns are financed pretty much says it all.

The Buying of the President 2008 is the latest effort by the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit investigative organization, to examine and expose the fundraising behind every presidential hopeful. And even though the book won’t be published until next year, it’s already clear that the 2008 election will be the most costly ever.

And that’s even without the torrents of cash certain to be unleashed by this week’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling. On a 5-4 vote, the high court overturned a key part of the 2002 campaign-finance law banning interest groups from funding ads that identify a candidate for office 30 days before a primary election and 60 days before a general election.

“It just adds fuel to the same fire,” Bill Buzenberg, the Center’s executive director, said yesterday. “You can’t imagine the kind of money that will be spent in the last two months of the 2008 presidential election.”

Bill Hogan is directing the team of writers and researchers producing the 2008 volume, the fourth to be published. His estimate: “The 2008 election is still starting out to exceed a billion dollars, and it wouldn’t surprise us if [the final] figure will be $2 billion.”

“This book is more about the process of financing the presidential election than about the individual candidates,” explained Hogan, a senior fellow of the Center. “In fact, it’s a lot more about the history of the presidential campaign finance system and the problems that exist year after year.”

The 2008 book will have another important difference. It won’t carry the name of Charles Lewis, who was the main author of the three previous books before he left to start the Fund for Independence in Journalism. Whether it will bear the names of the five veteran journalists who make up what Hogan calls an “all-star team” of writers and interviewers remains unclear.

The bylines of those five journalists are familiar to all the presidential candidates: Jules Witcover, James Doyle, Sarah Fritz, Nick Kotz and John Mashek. They have been conducting interviews for months and will each write chapters for the book.
Writers Stephanie Mencimer and Patrick J. Kiger will also contribute chapters.

Hogan, a former Washington editor for Mother Jones magazine, said that his writers and researchers will conduct “easily more than 500 interviews” and perhaps as many as a thousand. Those interviews will be available on the Center’s website, www.publicintegrity.org .

The 2008 hardcover edition will be followed in mid-2009 by a paperback version, which will include an analysis of how the 2009 presidential inauguration is paid for. The last one cost about $50 million.

“This will be the first-ever oral history of the role of money in presidential politics,” Hogan said. “We ask a lot of questions about the process. We’re interested in finding out whether the system we have now is as much an auction as an election. I think it is an auction, although I’m not sure the book will say that.”

One conclusion of the forthcoming book, he noted, is that the latest effort to regulate limits on campaign fundraising, the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, also known as McCain-Feingold, has done little to rein in some of the worst excesses, and new loopholes are always found. His comment came before the recent Supreme Court ruling.

As previous editions of The Buying of the President have written, running for president is a “two-year basic training program that includes hundreds of dehumanizing meet-and-greet, frozen-smile events, which culminate in a grueling 33-week stretch of campaigning in 45 state caucuses and primaries,” all of this before the national conventions and “followed by at least ten additional weeks of brutal national barnstorming.”

But there’s a good reason candidates are willing to endure the exhausting ordeal that leads to the Oval Office. And it’s not good news for long-shot candidates like Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) or Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.). As the book’s 2000 edition points out, in every election since 1976, the top fundraiser at the end of the year preceding the election has become his party’s nominee for the general election.

“That means that the race for the White House is substantially decided before any actual votes are cast,” according to the book. “The dirty little secret of American presidential politics is that the wealthiest interests essentially hold a private referendum the year before the election.”