Correction appended: This column said that Rudy Giuliani has raised $23.5 million for the 2008 Republican presidential primary. He has raised $15 million.
With spring in full bloom, eager fans are coming out of the woodwork to welcome the return of America’s pastime. Throughout spring training, players have whipped themselves into shape with the hopes that a big win might be just around the corner. But the glory will remain up for grabs until the fall chill sets in.
As I peruse the current standings, it appears that Hillary Clinton is ahead with $26 million, Barack Obama is hot on her heels with $25 million and Rudy Giuliani turns in a cool $15.5 million. Let the campaign finance games begin.
OK, so the 2008 presidential election is not America’s favorite pastime, but following the candidates’ fundraising is starting to feel more like watching ESPN on a Sunday night in May than a political campaign.
I don’t know much about baseball, but one aspect of the game I really like is the Cinderella story. After all is said and done and all the staggeringly high-priced contracts doled out, the World Series is still anyone’s for the taking. Take the Tigers last season. Against all odds, the team that historically couldn’t win a game pulled ahead in the American League while richer teams like the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox dropped the ball.
But in the game of politics, the Cinderella story is a retired fairytale. The candidates who can’t raise the millions necessary to remain competitive get stuck doing chores while the rich stepsisters go off to the ball – er, convention. Forget one, two, three strikes you’re out, because candidates are booted before the ump even yells “play ball!” if they aren’t swinging with the right amount of cash.
That is exactly what happened to former President Bill Clinton’s preferred candidate, two-term Indiana senator and former governor, Evan Bayh. Clinton famously said in 2000, “I hope and expect some day I’ll be voting for Evan Bayh for president of the United States.” Not a bad stamp of approval.
So whatever happened to Bayh’s presidential bid? Despite his moderate views and homerun qualifications, he dropped out of the race in December 2006. Turns out it was too costly to tackle giants like Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Likening himself to David and Hillary/Obama to Goliath, he quietly stepped aside and let the big kids play the game. No Tigers-like Cinderella story here.
By this point, Bayh and the other dropouts are forgotten. With the first quarter fundraising figures published last week, only the candidates playing to win are left standing. And the numbers are truly staggering. Aside from Clinton and Obama’s record-breaking stats, John Edwards has raised $14 million and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) a disappointing $12.5 million. The underdogs are promptly getting crushed; Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan..) came in under $2 million and Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.) had only $3 million. Get serious, guys, if you can’t play in the double digits, you might as well not play at all. It is estimated that any candidate who wants to remain competitive needs to raise at least $25 million for the primaries alone.
The importance placed on these first quarter numbers is almost as inane as the numbers themselves. Just a few weeks ago, McCain was the Republican candidate to beat, but now, with only $12.5 million under his belt, he has plenty of second guessers. And Clinton, the senator who America loves to hate, is suddenly thanking donors for their support as if she’s already declaring victory. While it would be na’ve to suggest money isn’t correlated with success, it’s certainly no guarantee. Just look at the fate of Michigan’s defeated gubernatorial candidate Dick DeVos. Or that of my hometown Chicago Cubs, who spent more than $300 million this winter, but are still likely to fail in their quest for World Series – like they have for the past 99 years.
The real irony, though, lies in the connection political pundits make between ability to fundraise and the ability to eventually lead the country. Didn’t we learn in 2004 that this is faulty logic? Two rich guys ran against each other, and we all know how well that turned out. Yes, the numbers are illustrative of nationwide support, but the emphasis being placed on cash is making a mockery of the entire presidential campaign.
While it might be a challenge to look past the money and toward the message, we owe it to ourselves to see these candidates for who they really are – not for their bank statements. Following the money might be a great strategy for uncovering scandals and catching crooks. But it’s not a smart play in selecting a president.
Whitney Dibo is an associate editorial page editor. She can be reached at email@example.com.