What Jeb Bush taught us about buying an election
If nothing else, Jeb Bush reminded us that we're all quite helplessly human. He quit the presidential race on Saturday, having spent some $130 million with nothing to show for it but a string of weak primary finishes. The man who some thought was sure to lock up the nomination without even trying served only as a punching bag for Donald Trump and a reminder that it's possible to feel pity even for scions of the nation's most powerful political family surrounded by odious warmongers.
However, it's also a valuable lesson of how money functions in politics. Money matters a lot, without question. But one cannot simply buy an election like a loaf of bread.
Nicholas Confessore and Sarah Cohen have a report on what Bush spent all his money on and it makes for interesting reading. Aside from some "minor" expenses like $94,000 on clubbing, the major categories were $84 million in advertising, $10 million in consulting, and $8.3 million on organization. Of those three categories, it seems likely that only the third helped Bush's campaign in any substantive way.
Political consultants are notoriously worthless. (In fact, they often serve as little more than a way for the candidate to enrich some of his or her friends.) All that paid media was utterly dwarfed by Trump's free attention, garnered by his mastery of our broken media culture — not to mention the lavish personal attention of MSNBC hosts Joe Scarborough and Mike Brzezinski, who were recently caught on a hot mic chatting chummily with Trump about how great they made him look.
But even if Bush had not faced Trump, it's doubtful all that advertising would have helped him much. At a presidential level, stakes are too high, competition is too fierce, and there is too much attention being lavished on the race for advertising to move perceptions very much. However, for some down-ballot race at the state or local level, a few tens of thousands of dollars absolutely can throw a race. Money's direct importance in the form of campaign contributions, or political efforts from associated super PACs or similar organizations, is thus inversely proportional to the prominence of the office in question.
However, due to competitive pressures, even presidential candidates feel like they have to raise money. What's more, post-Citizens United outside groups have massively increased the overall spending on a campaign and thus their average price. Plus, party committees are severely limited in their fundraising, and candidates can only raise a relatively limited amount from individuals. This means that, outside of highly visible national candidates who can rely on millions of tiny donations, candidates have to spend much of their waking life bowing and scraping before rich people.
This, I strongly suspect, seriously warps people's personal perspectives. This American Life did an excellent episode on the reality of fundraising as a modern working politician, and it was grim stuff. What people spend their time doing affects how they see the world, and the kind of issues they pay attention to. The concerns of the rich — whose views are far from representative of the general population — tends to loom large in a politician's mind. Worse, the whole system tends to select for people who embrace that role, or at least are comfortable performing it.
This all adds up to a massive barrier to genuine left-wing politicos. Conversely, right-wing and centrist politics are enabled, with deep-pocketed fundraising networks ready to hand.
Great wealth also has a profound effect on academia, and hence on the shape of policy discussion. The wealthy have always had an outsize influence on economics departments — as usual, the Koch brothers are breaking new grounds with massive endowments that are explicitly hinged on political conditions. Thus does right-wing economic policy progress.
As Thomas Piketty summarizes: "Some billionaires are consuming politicians, others consume reporters, and some consume academics."
So all the Bush family's vast network of rich friends couldn't overcome Jeb's crippling defects as a candidate. But money still exerts a powerful influence on the political system, shaping who runs for office, who wins, who gets what coverage, and which ideas are given serious consideration and which are ignored altogether.