Election 2000: Big Money Was the Real Surprise

The big surprise of the '00 presidential election was that there was no real surprise.

No October surprise. No November surprise. There was no wag-the-dog, rally-round-the-Administration bombing attack on a terrorist encampment. There was no end-of-campaign oil price shock engineered by Middle East nations looking to help the oil-man son of the president who rescued Kuwait in 1991. The stock market didn't tumble. No foreign crisis emerged to shape the campaign decisively.

There was little in the way of major flaps. The Bush camp had to contend with the fuss created by an anti-Gore ad that flashed the word "rats" on the screen for an instant, and it had to deal with the mystery of the Bush debate-prep tape that was anonymously mailed to a Gore adviser. Gore had to counter charges that he bent the truth when he talked about the cost of canine medicine and when he mentioned a trip he made to Texas to inspect fire damage.

None of this was big-time controversy. (Think Gennifer Flowers, or Willie Horton).

Perhaps the ineptitude of the Gore team (which played too many angles and never settled on a consistent message: fight-for-you populism or stay-the-course prosperity) and the competence of the Bush squad (which stuck to a simple script of dime-store values: trust people, not government; end partisan bickering in Washington, restore honor to the White House) were both somewhat unexpected. The veep picks were largely unforeseen -- but the vice presidential selections haven't really mattered. This campaign slouched toward election day with few real shockers. Ross Perot endorsing George W. Bush? Gore fumbling the what-to-do-with-Clinton question? Bush arrested for drunk driving in 1976?

To those who dare look behind the stage where one political heir wrassled with another, there was something shocking, although not astonishing, in this election: the increase in the flood of special-interest money pouring into the political system. Whatever happens on with the final vote, the big winner will be clear -- the corporate contributors, for they have managed to further tighten their already strong grip on the legislative and executive branches.

According to the calculations of the Center for Responsive Politics -- see its website, www.opensecrets.org -- the presidential and congressional elections of 2000 will cost about $3 billion. In the first 18 months of this election cycle, the candidates for president, the House, and the Senate raised $1.6 billion, 33 percent more than the same period in the 1996 campaign.

Much of this extra lubricant was provided by corporate interests. In the first year-and-a-half of the campaign, soft money contributions -- the unrestricted big-dollar contributions from corporations, millionaires and unions -- were up 70 percent over four years ago. With soft-money contributions and other donations, the securities and investment industry has pumped about $60 million into this year's election; the real estate industry, over $50 million, the insurance industry, over $30 million; the oil and gas industry, over $25 million; the pharmaceutical and health products industry, over $30 million; the commercial banks, over $16 million; the telephone companies, over $16 million. (And these figures only take into account checks cut through early October.)

As they say in Washington, these millions add up to real money. The boost in political dollars was partially fueled by Bush, who raised a record-setting $100 million to Gore's $45 million. Seventeen percent of Bush's funds came from the real estate, finance, oil and gas, and insurance industries.

It's true that the top donors of the year have included several labor unions. As of October 1, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees was the number-two giver ($4,090,764), just a small-change distance behind number-one AT&T ($4,321,339). But, overall, labor does not have the financial muscle of industry. In fact, it's a butterfly-to-bulldozer match up. Through the end of September, business execs and corporations had contributed $842 million to candidates and parties; the unions had kicked in $56 million. That's a 15-to-1 advantage for corporate America. (The AFL-CIO has spent over $40 million on a campaign to help Gore and Democratic congressional candidates, but various industry groups, such as the US Chamber of Commerce, mounted their own drives to assist Bush and the GOPers.)

Ideological outfits -- groups such as the NRA or the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League -- donated $34 million to the candidates and parties. But, with little competition, the business class is the main source of money for the political class.

The mo' money of Campaign 2000 is a continuation of a trend that has been under way for years, but what was new this time was how the corporate booty was split between the two main parties. The Democrats usually fare much less well than the Republicans in the corporate contributions sweepstakes, and they often raise less money than the GOPers. This year -- when Gore is running as a purported populist who wants to fight "powerful interests" _for you!_ -- the Democrats have sucked in tremendous amounts of corporate money from industries that are eager to buy a piece of both parties, especially when control fo the House was in play. The securities and investment industry handed over $12 million to the Democratic Party and over $19 million to the Republican Party. The insurance industry gave over $5 million to the Democratic Party and over $9 million to the Republicans. The pharmaceutical and heath products industry passed over $3.7 million to the Democratic Party and over $7 million to the GOP.

The Democrats' House and Senate campaign committees were able to match their Republican competitors in fundraising because they made concerted efforts to up their take in corporate dollars. The securities crowd, as of October 1, donated $2.8 million to the Democrats' take-back-the-House campaign and $1.4 million to the Republicans' keep-control-of-the-House endeavor. The telephone utilities contributed $1.3 million to the House Democrats and $1.7 million to the House Republicans. On the Senate side, the insurance companies contributed $1.5 million each to the Democrats and the Republicans.

The corporate contributions in this election, through September, divided 59 to 40 percent for the Republicans over Democrats. But, for the Democrats, 40 percent of $842 million is still a damn nice chunk of money. With the Democrats chasing after corporate bucks as much as the Republicans, how different will they be from the GOPers on matters of interest to corporate America? Aren't the funders who subsidize the Democrats entitled to special consideration from the party's elected officials? It would only seem fair.

On election day, all these eye-glazing, money-and-politics numbers are not the figures that get much notice. But they are as accurate an indicator of the composition of the political system as are the results in the House, Senate, and presidential contests. They don't even tell the whole story, since there are avenues for political spending beyond direct donations to pols. Citizens for Better Medicare, a front group for the pharmaceutical industry, spent $40 million this year on television ads blasting the Democrats' prescription drug plan for the elderly. And corporate money has been pouring into what's known as "stealth PACs," political committees that are controlled by members of Congress.

One of the presidential candidates of the Democratic-Republican duopoly said he wanted to be president so he can combat the powerful. The other maintained he hoped he reached the White House so he could restore honor and integrity to government. But both were looking to lead a system underwritten (and tainted) by special interests, which use political donations -- backed up by vigorous lobbying efforts -- to encourage Congress to tend to their concerns, not those of consumers and citizens. No matter who wins on election day, the system will remain in the hands of those who pay for it. Alas, that's no surprise.

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