NEW YORK – Bernie Sanders did not, thankfully, boast about the size of his “hands.”
Nor did Hillary Clinton strut across the stage and slap Sanders across the face, although the look on her face said she might have wanted to.
That’s about the best that can be said about the Democrats’ Thursday night Brooklyn brawl – the first Democratic debate to devolve into the kind of sorry shouting match that the Republican candidates have engaged in for months now.
But don’t blame the candidates for turning the 2016 campaign into such a spectacle. They just so happen to be stuck in a presidential nominating system that is broken beyond repair.
What started 45 years ago as an attempt to democratize the nomination process instead has done more to monetize it. And as a result, an American presidential election is now a two-year, multi-billion-dollar marathon that makes democracy a slave to commerce.
The commerce starts when the fundraising starts, and the fundraising never ends. In fact, most presidential contenders start courting the special interests way more than two years before they run. The money they raise then goes to feed all the consultants and ad makers and broadcast stations and networks that get fat off the system, who get fatter the longer the campaign drags on.
And in return for all this, America gets candidates who can’t stop thinking about money and circus sideshows such as the one that aired on CNN Thursday night.
For voters, it’s disillusioning, and for candidates, it’s degrading. Worse yet, the money-driven monstrosity called presidential politics might just be stopping some of America’s best minds from ever running for president.
It all started, as many disasters do, with the best of intentions.
After the Democrats’ chaotic convention in 1968 ended up nominating a candidate, Hubert Humphrey, who didn’t even run in the primaries, the Democratic National Committee set up a commission to find a way to get voters more involved in the nominating process.
The commission pushed state parties to choose their delegates to the national convention in primaries or caucuses, and after the Democrats tried that in 1972, the Republicans adopted a similar system four years later.
That system the two parties adopted is unlike that of other major democracies, where party insiders still decide the candidates for president or prime minister and where national campaigns last weeks, not years.
Under that oddball American system, the campaign season grew longer and longer and costlier and costlier. States jostled with each other to find prime dates on the primary calendar when they would have the greatest influence. Networks jostled with each other to host debates. And candidates had to work harder and harder to raise the money to compete.
The job of money-raising got even more important after 2010, when the Supreme Court ruled in the Citizens United case that nonprofits, corporations, labor unions and other associations could make unlimited independent political expenditures. That made this decade the era of the “super PAC,” where most presidential candidates have not only a campaign committee, but also at least one outside entity raising unlimited sums from special interests.
The Citizens United decision and other creative uses of the campaign finance laws produce headlines like these:
Clinton asks for $353K to sit with the Clooneys.
The man behind the $10 million donation to a Ted Cruz Super PAC.
Now what does all this money buy? If you’ve watched television at all in these weeks before Tuesday’s New York primary, you’ve seen some of what it buys. You’ve seen ads about the wonders Hillary Clinton did in upstate New York, ads that tell you “Ted Cruz is trusted and proven,” ads that repeat again and again and again.
The question, of course, is whether that money buys something more nefarious than campaign commercials – whether it buys influence, too.
Voters seem to be wondering if it does. After all, this year they have flocked in surprising numbers to candidates who didn’t create Super PACs and who campaign against them: Sanders and Republican Donald Trump.
Sanders is blessed that his progressive message has allowed him to raise millions of dollars from small donors, and Trump is blessed by the fact that, well, he’s Donald Trump and can afford to fund his own campaign.
For the other candidates, though, it must be agony. Think about it: four years ago, Hillary Clinton was meeting with presidents and kings as secretary of state. Now she’s meeting with sycophantic rich people who will pay a third of a million dollars to hobnob with George Clooney.
And poor John Kasich. Literally. He’s struggled to raise money for his campaign simply because he’s a successful center-right governor of Ohio at a time when the big money in the Republican Party springs from the far right.
Of course, politicians wouldn’t have to stoop to raising so much money if they didn’t have to spend it. But an entire industry of consultants, ad makers and pollsters demands that they do, demands that they need to buy this much air time or do one more private poll if they really want to compete.
Sad to say, the political money-making doesn’t stop there. In fact, the electronic media is every bit as complicit in making the presidential nominating process a draining, drawn-out affair.
The networks, which have seen their ratings skyrocket thanks to interest in Trump’s reality-TV-show of a candidacy, are happy to give the bombastic billionaire free air time that the other candidates don’t get, all in the pursuit of higher ratings and more money.
For proof, just listen to Leslie Moonves, chairman and CEO of CBS.
“Man, who would have expected the ride we’re all having right now? ... The money’s rolling in and this is fun,” Moonves said at a conference in San Francisco last month, according to The Hollywood Reporter. “I’ve never seen anything like this, and this is going to be a very good year for us. Sorry. It’s a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on, Donald. Keep going.”
Calling the election “a circus,” Moonves added: ““It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.”
It’s good both in terms of ratings for the debates as well as ad revenue, said Moonves, seemingly drunk on truth serum.
“Most of the ads are not about issues. They’re sort of like the debates,” he added.
Which brings us back to New York, and the rhetorical mud fight between Clinton and Sanders.
The debate, the Democrats’ ninth, didn’t tell us anything new about Clinton or Sanders or their views on the issues.
All it told us is that Clinton and Sanders are sick of each other – and why wouldn’t they be? Imagine yourself having to go on stage and debate for two hours against that person at work who disagrees with everything you say and do. Now imagine doing that nine times. Now you know what Clinton and Sanders must have been feeling Thursday night.
Their debate was bad politics, but the angry exchanges between the candidates and the booing and yelling from the crowd made for good television. CNN made sure of that, as Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz – who attended the debate – explained on Facebook Friday.
“CNN’s stage director encouraged the crowd prior to the start to cheer and clap for your favorite candidate,” and so people did – to excess, Poloncarz said. “The decorum level was not good, including supporters often going back and forth between themselves in the crowd.”
It wasn’t, to use a quaint term, presidential. But then again, nothing about Campaign 2016 is. And it makes you wonder how the greats would have coped with it.
How would Franklin Delano Roosevelt, paralyzed from the waist down, have coped with a two-year campaign of nonstop fundraising and public appearances and debates? Could FDR, one of our greatest presidents, even run in this modern era?
And what about Dwight Eisenhower, a highly regarded president but a reluctant candidate to begin with? Would he look at the rigors of a modern campaign and think: “Hell, no”?
But Eisenhower, a quiet and thoughtful leader who warned us of a “military-industrial complex” possibly bearing too much influence on public policy, might do more than just sit on the sidelines if he were alive today.
He might well warn us that a political-industrial complex is devouring our democracy.