Money and politics

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(HOST) In the fall of 2001, commentator Philip Baruth wound up at a small dinner in Burlington for Democratic strategist, James Carville. Carville put forward a concept for campaign funding reform that Philip has never seen discussed elsewhere but it’s an idea that Philip thinks has a certain wild, out-of-the-box appeal to it.

(BARUTH) In September of 2001, James Carville came to the University of Vermont to deliver the annual Aiken Lecture. At the time, I was writing a novel about Bill Clinton, and Carville was a main character. Actually, Carville was two main characters, because the book also involves time travel.

Anway, the point is that I really, really wanted to meet the guy, and my friend Tony was able to wangle me an invitation. And it was worth the trouble: Carville is one of the most intriguing characters in American political history, mostly, you get the impression, because he works so hard at it.

Being a character, that is.

Carville arrived late and nodded at those of us already sitting at the table. But he didn’t sit down himself; instead he wandered the restaurant. He seemed to have not just a desire but a need to be noticed, stared at.

In fact, throughout the dinner, Carville punctuated every other conversational point by striking the table with a flat hand, hard enough to make the silverware jangle. It was a constant counterpoint, the way a tambourine backs up a hot Motown standard. In short, it was impossible not to pay attention, for one reason or another.

And, because John McCain had been getting so much press at that point for his McCain/Feingold bill, Carville seemed to want especially to make himself heard on that topic. So at one point, when he had everyone’s attention, Carville announced that he’d solved the entire campaign finance problem. Here were his two related proposals:

1) Anyone in office would be forbidden by Federal law from any sort of fund-raising, period. Added to the existing ban on gifts, this would do away entirely with the “pay-for-play” system that currently plagues American democracy.

2) Challengers for public office could spend whatever they could raise or donate, no limits of any sort. Incumbents, on the other hand, would be publicly financed, but here’s the kicker, incumbents would receive only eighty-five percent of whatever their challengers manage to donate or raise. In this way, the proposal takes into account the natural advantages that come with incumbency.

Now, obviously there were major stumbling blocks to Carville’s proposal, and we argued about them until long after the restaurant had emptied out. The Supreme Court might well challenge the idea in its entirety, and public financing has been plagued by a failure to fund the programs, and a failure to enforce them once in place.

But over the years, I’ve come to see more good than evil in Carville’s scheme. Why does the idea of banning lawmakers from accepting any sort of money or gift strike us as radical or extreme? And why, with incumbency now a statistical guarantee of re-election, does the idea of deliberately tilting the playing field toward the challenger strike us as somehow unfair?

When he got up to leave that night, Carville took the hand of the woman sitting next to him and said, in a very courtly manner, “Please excuse my crudity tonight.” But maybe when it comes to reforming a system awash in money and hopelessly conflicted in its interests, a little crudity is exactly what this country needs.

Philip Baruth is a novelist living in Burlington. He teaches at the University of Vermont.

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