Commentary Magazine


Too Many Hats in the Ring

In a recent column, satirist Andy Borowitz suggests that in 2008, there will be more presidential candidates than there are voters:

With politicians throwing their hats in the ring at a torrid pace, by November 2008, one out of every two Americans is expected to be running for the nation’s highest office—an extraordinary figure by any measure.

Why so many candidates? Because the barriers to entry are so low and the psychic rewards so great. Today the presidential campaign has become a kind of Davos for the political set: a seemingly endless opportunity for opining on energy, education, and health care, pontificating about the future, rubbing elbows with high-profile journalists, and being taken very, very seriously. No other avenue of American life grants so much attention and national exposure to individuals of such modest accomplishments. How else can one explain the presidential campaigns of Congressman Duncan Hunter, Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack, or former Virginia Governor Jim Gilmore?

All this places the media in a dilemma: how can they cover so many candidates without appearing biased? Because they fear being accused of pre-emptively anointing a front-runner, the media use a spurious evenhandedness in discussing the growing roster of aspirants. As the passing weeks have launched the presidential ambitions of one mediocre pol after another, one wonders whether each will be accorded the full road-to-the-White-House treatment: extended excerpts of his speeches on the Jim Lehrer Newshour; a one-on-one interview with Marvin Kalb at the Kennedy School; cinema verité footage of his New Hampshire town meetings on C-SPAN, etc.

While editorial writers are loath to admit it, there is, in the end, only one way to separate the presidential wheat from the chaff: fundraising. Asking someone for $2,000 to support your candidacy—or, more accurately, asking someone to find 20 such donors—is still the best test of a candidate’s national viability. This point seems to be utterly lost on those public watchdogs who insist that there is too much money in our campaigns. Fred Wertheimer, the founder of campaign-finance watchdog Common Cause and now president of Democracy21, held a press conference on Wednesday to bemoan the fact that Hillary Clinton may forgo public funding of her campaign. Public funding, Wertheimer contends, gives “serious candidates” a chance to be heard.

Yet surely any “serious” candidate ought to be interesting enough to attract serious money, or at least enough to mount a competitive campaign. The alternative is to rely on public financing, the favorite hobby horse of Wertheimer, former Presidential candidate Bill Bradley, the New York Times, the Center for Responsive Politics, and many other self-appointed guardians of good government. It is remarkable that this argument can still be made with a straight face: do we really want a taxpayer-funded system that enables and indeed fosters the narcissistic electoral pursuits of Dennis Kucinich?

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