We know we have a problem, a big problem. It threatens our democracy. It centers on the enormous sums nowadays required to run for public office. The scale of our country, the size of our population, the costliness of information technology, all conspire to make winning or losing public office less a matter of political merit than of cash raising ability.

Candidates who raised the most money won 94 percent of the seats up for election in Congress in 2002.

In 2000, winners of seats in the U.S. House out-raised and out-spent their opponents by almost 3-to-1, as winners raised an average of $916,629 and losers on average raised $309,213. In the Senate, winners raised, on average, $7,307,402 while losers raised $3,594,447.

According to studies of the U.S. adult population, 94 to 96% make no political contribution of any size. Contributors of less than $200 accounted for just 19% of the total.

Does this leave us in a hopeless situation? Are we stuck with a system which will forever give the edge to corporations, unions and all those able to funnel large sums to candidates? Are we reduced to praying for the day law-makers shut down the route that put them into office? That is the pickle we are in. Moreover, the very idea of plugging the large money hydrants is fatuous. Big money will always find a way to burst through. Is there no answer?

A WHOLE NEW TACK

The solution must be independent of legislators, because few law makers will vote against their own bad habits. Instead of trying to discourage the money flow from big contributors why not try the reverse: encourage the practice of modest political giving! The US has a population of 300 million. With enough people pitching in with small sums, special interest funding can be overwhelmed. It is doable. If from 5 to 10% of the public gives a $100 on average the problem is licked.

How to induce such relative wide scale giving? A small number of the rich give far more. But they have a special motivation. The politicians have found a way to reward big contributors, by promising access. They have not found a way to reward small donations, that is the problem. Thus, in 2002, less than one-tenth of 1% of the US population made 83% of all itemized campaign contributions.

Candidates need a way to reward small donations. They need to be able to give $50 to $200 contributors something concrete, immediate and desirable. Once such a reward, modest but sought after, becomes available the day of the big wallet is over.

HERE IS HOW

The candidate announces, as he/she throws the proverbial hat into the ring, that every step of the campaign will be accompanied by a video camera. After election night all that footage will be tailored into a video documentary. It will include the most interesting, revealing, and funny moments of the campaign, the debate highlights, strategy meetings, candidate and spouse pillow talk, everything down to the tense close-up moments as the vote totals drift in.

Win or lose every $50 contributor will receive a cassette or CD of this documentary. It will be a unique view of the campaign available to no one but contributors. It will be the candidate's thank you.

Contributors of $100 will receive a special edition. Their name will appear on the case. In the documentary itself they will see themselves credited and thanked, not as one name midst a scrolling list of thousands, but exclusively.

The personalized copy of a $200 contributor will contain a segment where the candidate looks into the camera and thanks his benefactor, and only him/her, by name.

Those who contribute the legal maximum will be given an opportunity to meet the candidate and shake his/her hand. That personal encounter will be taped and incorporated into the contributor's copy of the documentary.

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Americans are avid collectors. They collect for money and for pleasure, for themselves and for their heirs. They collect everything form  baseball cards and bottle caps, to Picassos and vintage cars. Here they would have a chance to acquire unique bits of Americana. Their friends and their heirs can see them participate in US political history. Just suppose we today had campaign videos showing our great-great-grandfathers shaking hands with FDR after his NY gubernatorial campaign, or with Senator-elect Stephan Douglas whose documentary would also include snippets of that campaign's loser, Abraham Lincoln. Who would not treasure such a family memento?

Here then is a way to finance any political campaign be it for mayoral office, a seat in Congress, or the White House. It will allow a candidate to pay off his obligations before he/she even swears the oath of office, and be his own man thereafter.

PROBLEMS:


What about the documentary of a losing candidate?

It would be worth having. Just imagine owning a campaign documentary of losers like William Jennings Bryan or Wendell Willkie or Aaron Burr. Moreover, every loser's documentary would of necessity include snatches of the winning opponent, especially in debate segments.

Would it not be costly to produce such a documentary?


It need not be a slick piece of work. If it is the actual handiwork of the candidate and spouse, using the editing equipment of a local college and help from the campaign staff, the non-professional aspect of the video would make it all the more genuine and personal.

Would it not be expensive and time consuming to produce personalized copies?

No. It is easy to make exclusive tapes each crediting  a separate sponsor. It is also easy to have a candidate look into a camera and read off hundreds of names and have each name inserted as a separate sound bite into a separate tape.

Meetings with  the maximum contributors could also be easily taped and inserted into a cassette. One way would be, via a slow moving escalator. The handshake would last only a few seconds but the contributor could be videoed approaching, and the handshake shot from two and even three angles and all  inserted into the tape with general words by the candidate. The effect would be of a substantial meeting.

Candidates often have famous supporters from the entertainment and sport world. Contributors might be given the option of meeting and being thanked on behalf of the candidate by such a celebrity and have that handshake inserted in the documentary. Some people might prefer the thrill of meeting a Paul Newman or Britney Spears to meeting any politician.

What about the time this would require of the candidate? If there are many contributors, even if every hand shake lasts but 10 seconds that could still mean many days of work shaking hands.


Yes, it might require a candidate to spend two or three weeks of tiresome handshaking 10 hours a day. So what? There are 2 months between election and inauguration day. In that time the candidate would satisfy all obligations to contributors. Is that not preferable to being beholden to contributors throughout a term?

Suppose 20 people throw their hats into the ring for a congressional seat and promise campaign videos?

Clearly, the most viable candidates will get most of the contributions. Few people are interested in the vanity productions of nobodies.

Is there not a danger that this method will finance candidates from the radical right and left?

Yes that possibility exists. Some disagreeable people are articulate and compelling. Their campaigns videos might attract contributors who don't share their politics. The result might bankroll some rather rancid politicians. But all in all, an open democracy has less to fear from corrupt ideas than from corrupting money.

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