Tom Nardi

It’s sad but true that in order to win office in today’s American polity, one needs money. Lots of it. “The 2008 race will be the longest and most expensive presidential election in American history,” said Michael E. Toner, former Federal Elections Commission chair. “Top-tier candidates are going to have to raise $100 million by the end of 2007 to be a serious candidate.”

Beyond advertising and name recognition, money becomes the early indication of campaign viability. In a media-driven election cycle, this indicator of the horse-race is viewed as even more important than message. Preceding reporting deadlines, campaigns will routinely ask for more money to “prove” their own viability.

A vicious cycle is thus created. The more “electable” candidates start raising more money because they attract more attention. These candidates then become the new fundraising leaders and use their inflated war chests as justification of their own viability. Indeed, we have seen this trend with Hillary Clinton, Rudy Guiliani, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. Romney even presents a special case because after he bought the Iowa straw poll, spending between $500 and $1000 per vote, he became the apparent frontrunner of the Republican Party.

The reverse is true of campaigns as well. Doomed campaigns, like that of Tommy Thompson, will fail to raise money. And campaigns once thought promising, like that of John McCain, will be written off as failures if they cannot raise sufficient funding. The message doesn’t matter nearly as much as the money. The media will never do a story on Hillary Clinton’s stance on CAFTA, but it will devote hours to how much money she has on hand.

Such an emphasis on money as a source of power allowed Norman Hsu to rise to prominence in the inner sanctum of Democratic Party fundraising.

Hsu is a longtime Democratic fundraiser and what a campaign might call a generous “giver.” (Campaigns like to use the term “give.” Maybe it makes their work seem more pious.) Since 2004 Hsu has donated in his own name over $255,000 to various Democratic candidates and organizations. He was also involved in so-called bundling, acting as a “HillRaiser” for Hillary Clinton – meaning that he was responsible for raising over $100,000 for the senator.

However, Hsu is facing a few problems. First, he is suspected of violating campaign finance laws by reimbursing others in order to make unlimited donations to candidates of his choosing. Second, he is wanted for skipping a court date in a 1992 fraud case. One wonders why such a man would have such close access to those in the corridors of power. The answer is that we view money as speech.

The fundamental view of speech laid out in the Constitution is something that is distributed equally to every man and woman in the country. It is the ability of self-expression. First Amendment speech represents the free exchange of ideas, regardless of their content. I can say something through this column, and anyone who reads can write a letter to the editor or respond via the paper’s Web site. While forums and modes of expression may be different, the inherent nature of the speech is the same. However, when money is involved, the aim of speech is perverted.

At its core, money is used to buy things. Politically, it is used to buy candidates. The newest mutation of money in politics was that exploited by Hsu, namely “bundling.” It is a method perfected by George Bush and Karl Rove and since adopted by Democrats like Hillary Clinton. It is used to circumvent established restrictions on donations, because while Hsu might only be allowed to donate $4,600 personally to Clinton, he can have others donate using him as a bundler. So while the money doesn’t come from Hsu, everyone knows who is responsible. And that is wrong.

Money is not speech, because money represents something that cannot be equal across individuals. While I might have access to a forum like The Villanovan to express my ideas, you too could write as I do. However, I do not have $4,600 to donate to Clinton, and I certainly don’t have the time to be a HillRaiser and bundle all of that money. Money as speech is fundamentally unequal and cannot be viewed as protected under the First Amendment.

Many Democratic politicians, ranging from Clinton herself to Representatives Patrick Murphy and Joe Sestak, have promised to divest their campaigns of all or some Hsu-related monies by donating equal amounts to charity. That’s a nice gesture. But unlike baseball, there is no way to win as an outsider in Moneyball politics. Only those with money can succeed in the system, and they are certainly not going to change the rules that got them elected in the first place.

Tom Nardi is a senior political science major from Philadelphia, Pa. He can be reached at [email protected].