Tuesday, February 9, 2016

What money won’t buy, and what it will

        Jeb Bush didn't exactly get skunked in Iowa. But, well, his 2.9 percent showing meant – let's put the calculator to it, as political savant Nate Silver did: The $14.9 million he spent on advertising alone there meant he harvested one vote for every $2,844.

It would have been better for Jeb to have spent it all on corn.

We've been led to assume the contrary, but in presidential politics, as the Beatles once sang, money can't buy you love.

The two super PACs Karl Rove assembled to influence the 2012 elections raised a stunning $175 million and accomplished almost nothing.

Indeed, that year PACs on both sides spent $14 billion. In the presidential race, all that gold didn't move the needle. Barack Obama entered the 2012 campaign with a 3-point lead in the polls. He won with a margin of, yes, 3 percent.

When it comes to presidential politics, money can buy you time (Ted Cruz). Money can get you in when uninvited (Donald Trump). Money can scare off some competitors (George W. Bush, 2000). But it may be the worst investment outside interests could make.

Now, if you want to spend your money in ways that will influence policy, buy a member of Congress -- or the state Legislature.

Is it possible to oversell the role of big money in politics? No, not at all. Money talks. Charles and David Koch are sitting in their lair right now dangling $250 million in support for the survivor of the GOP sweepstakes, and that survivor is likely to do exactly what they say.

It is odd to hear Cruz say that his campaign is a "grassroots" effort when $15 million of his super PAC's $38 million comes from one source: West Texas fracking moguls Dan and Farris Wilks.

The Wilks Bros. may have no higher expectations about Cruz's presidential chances than you or I, but they do know now that they have bought their own senator. 

This senator has a post on the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. In other words, the Wilks have purchased their own committee seat now, and they know it. Beats a stadium luxury box all to heck.

So, yes, money matters – a lot. Aside from the gerrymandering that has left so many in Congress in racially identifiable fortresses, money from special interests has sculpted today's Congress into an institution with public approval ratings ranking somewhere between chiggers and ragweed.

Jack Abramoff, who went to prison for bribing congressional Republicans on behalf of Indian tribes' casino dreams, says the bribery is so brazen that no one would see it as anything else.

We have "gifts" rules, you see. However . . .

Well, let's let Abramoff explain it to "60 Minutes":

"You can't take a congressman to lunch for $25 and buy him a hamburger or a steak or something like that. But you can take him to a fundraising lunch and not only buy him that steak, but give him $25,000 extra and call it a fundraiser."

That's how Washington is run, and it all bubbles up in policies that benefit those with the extra millions rattling around in their petty cash (or petro cash, as it were).

Those policies protect the oil industry from telling us what chemicals get pumped into the ground and to dodge controls on pollution that to poisons the Earth and its atmosphere, and causes an earthquake or several hundred. Let us hear an "amen," Sen. Cruz.

Money. It doesn't matter except when it does.

Longtime newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. Email: jyoungcolumn@gmail.com.

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