Big Money In Politics: Republican Debate Edition

Republican presidential candidates from left, Chris Christie, Marco Rubio, Ben Carson, Scott Walker, Donald Trump, Jeb Bush,
Republican presidential candidates from left, Chris Christie, Marco Rubio, Ben Carson, Scott Walker, Donald Trump, Jeb Bush, Mike Huckabee, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and John Kasich take the stage for the first Republican presidential debate at the Quicken Loans Arena, Thursday, Aug. 6, 2015, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Donald Trump was the center of attention in Thursday evening's (August 6) Republican debate, and he was everything one expected him to be. He was crude, he was sexist, he was condescending and insulting -- not just to the American public, but to other nations and allies. He even picked on Japan -- our best and strongest ally in East Asia.

While "the Donald" certainly offers a target-rich environment, I would like to focus in particular on his comments about the way in which he has used his wealth to buy political access. He gave money to many politicians, he admitted, even some of the men sharing the stage with him. When asked, he even acknowledged contributions to Nancy Pelosi and Hillary Clinton.

Bret Baier then brought up a quotation from Trump's past: "When you give, they [politicians] do whatever the hell you want them to." Baier wanted to know if Trump now wanted to distance himself from those remarks. But Trump was not only unapologetic, he even doubled down: "I give to everybody. When they call, I give. . . . When I need something done from them two years later, three years later, I call them, they are there for me."

What exactly had politicians done for Trump? Baier was curious. Trump looked for a moment as if he had just walked into a trap. Acknowledge substantial quid pro quo's, and he could trigger an investigation. So he shrugged and said that thanks to his many contributions, he got Hillary Clinton to attend his wedding: "She didn't have a choice, because I gave."

And herein is the problem with the political order. The rich truly are different from ordinary American citizens. They have the wealth and the financial interest to buy access to the political class. As we approach the 2016 electoral season, we need to be mindful that Donald Trump, in his brash, crass, bloviating style managed to get to the heart of the crisis eating away at American politics. He is no reformer. He is the problem, and not the solution. But his utter cynicism made clear the dimensions of the predicament we are in.

America's wealthy super-elites see politics as investment. By and large, they do not donate vast sums of wealth out of some sense of civic duty. No, they put money into super PACS, they give to the limit to individual candidates, they support candidates' foundations and promote their favored causes because they expect something in return. Even the outspoken Donald Trump knows better than to describe what he has spoken about with the politicians to whom he has been granted special attention and access. We are left to imagine. But in our imaginings, we should always bear in mind that catchphrase from modern business -- "ROI" -- "Return on investment." What are they getting back?

What we need from the 2016 election, more urgently than ever, is to return campaign finance reform to the political agenda. Three was a time when the United States had some fairly strong legislation on the books. The modern history of campaign finance reform began in the wake of the Watergate election of 1972, when Richard Nixon's Committee to Re-elect the President raised gargantuan sums of money from America's business class -- perhaps as much as ten million dollars from insurance executive Clement Stone, and more exotic, semi-secret contributions from such exotic, semi-secret characters as Robert Vesco and Howard Hughes.

In the wake of Watergate, in 1975, Congress created the Federal Election Commission and empowered the Commission to enforce strict limits on contributions by individuals and political action committees. And in 1976, in the decision of Buckley v. Valeo, there began the long and inglorious history of the United States Supreme Court relaxing those restrictions. The Supreme Court did not precisely declare that "money is speech," but its ruling that certain campaign finance restrictions infringed on free-speech rights came pretty close to saying just that.

Nearly three decades later, in 2002, Congress enacted the "Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act," better known as "McCain-Feingold," after the bill's two principal sponsors, Republican John McCain of Arizona and Democrat Russell Feingold of Wisconsin. John McCain's impetus to take action was the result of his involvement as a member of the so-called "Keating Five." This was a group of western senators who had received large and questionable campaign contributions from Charles Keating, a corrupt Arizona banker and real-estate developer. Although McCain escaped formal reprimand (he was criticized for "bad judgment"), he concluded that the system needed repair.

The goal of McCain-Feingold was to reduce the influence of large pools of soft money on the political process. While the Supreme Court has upheld parts of McCain-Feingold, it has also relaxed crucial provisions. Most notoriously, in the case of Citizens United (2010), the Supreme Court declared that corporations enjoyed full political and free-speech rights and could therefore spend money directly on behalf of candidates or issues. A pair of federal appellate decisions have helped to complete the demolition. In Emily's List v. FEC and Speechnow.org v. FEC, courts empowered Super PACs to raise unlimited sums of money from wealthy donors, all in the name of the First Amendment.

Donald Trump's performance illustrates the final consequence of this sorry train of developments. He has, by all accounts, fielded countless calls from politicians in need of money and he has donated generously to many of them. But he is no longer content to be simply another member of the donor/contribution/investor class who helps to finance the modern political campaign. He wishes to become a player himself. On Thursday night, he plainly oozed contempt for his fellow candidates. It is a condescension born of the many backdoor conversations he has doubtlessly had with contenders for elective office. Politicians have genuflected too many times before his throne, for Trump to retain any respect for them now.

I am personally disappointed that other commentators have seemingly not noticed this portion of the Republican debate. For me, these might have been the most troubling moments. I hope for many things from the 2016 election, but two issues seem particularly compelling at the moment: We need to elect a president and Congress who are serious about campaign-finance reform. And we need a Supreme Court that will defer to the judgments of the legislative branch on how to lessen the impact of great wealth on the political process. If politicians try to clean up politics -- a noble cause! -- the Supreme Court should cease being an obstacle.