Imagine a Republican candidate for President who truly has all the right stuff:
- Looks the part like Mitt Romney, but not a mealy-mouthed animatronic prig.
- Silver-haired, silver-tongued devil like Newt Gingrich, but not a delusional windbag.
- Defender of individual rights like Ron Paul, but not a torch-waving anarchist.
- Experienced legislator like Rick Santorum, but not a rigid, moralizing dandy.
- Shoot-from-the-hip Governor like Rick Perry, but not a stammering loose cannon.
- Consistent message like Michele Bachmann, but not a gaffe-prone idiot.
- Successful businessman like Herman Cain, but not a womanizing puff-talking wanker.
Buddy Roemer is earnest, likeable, and straight-talking, a three-term former governor and four-term former U. S. Congressman. As stated on his campaign website, “Buddy is the only candidate with executive, legislative, and private sector experience,” but what makes the strings of my heart go zing! is his one-man crusade to roll back the influence of money in politics. Indeed, the first item in his list of policy priorities is “Fighting Special Interests,” under which heading he actually specifically mentions the odious Citizens United ruling. He’s put his campaign on a strict diet of $100-max contributions from living, breathing human beings. His Twitter feed is peppered with remarks about super-PACs and corporate influence peddling, and he raised eyebrows last month by declaring his GOP rivals “bought and sold.” The Republican establishment is not amused, as evidenced by his brazenly unfair exclusion from Republican debates.
He’s embraced the Occupy movement, called for the jailing of Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein, and despite his strong libertarian leanings, has earned at least some measure of grudging respect from such liberal pundits as Rachel Maddow and Thom Hartmann.
Nevertheless, chances are good you may never have heard of him, and even better that you had no idea he is running for President. He is dead last in fundraising among his GOP rivals, and presumably the Anachronistic Idealism USA Super-PAC never quite got off the ground. The populist firebrand soldiers on undaunted, but his uphill battle is emblematic of a profoundly dysfunctional political system.
The contrast between reality and politics has rarely been as stark. It’s taken as an article of faith by average Americans that our campaign finance system is rife with corruption, that the voice of little guy is drowned out by corporate megaphones, and that reining in undue special interest influence is crucial to restoring some semblance of democracy. Even rank and file Republican voters are uneasy and unenthusiastic about Citizens United. Yet Roemer, who has made the fight against special interests a centerpiece of his entire political career, might just as well be running for captain of his bowling league for all the enthusiasm his campaign has generated.
There’s a delicious irony in a former Louisiana governor running on an integrity platform, but Roemer is clearly a man on a mission. Sadly, Buddy Roemer isn’t going anywhere, and for a bitterly ironic reason: Integrity doesn’t sell, at least not in the surreal theater of politics and elections.
It doesn’t sell for at least two reasons: Number one, it’s boring. It’s hard to get a firm grasp on the scope and all the pernicious fallout of the increasingly flagrant institutionalized graft in our political system, let alone put one’s finger on precisely who the “enemy” is. We’re routinely outraged by depictions of influence run amok, such as these findings from a recent report by publicampaign.org:
- The thirty big corporations analyzed… paid more to lobby federal policymakers than they paid in federal income taxes for the three years between 2008 and 2010, despite being profitable.
- Despite making combined profits totally $164 billion in that three-year period, the 30 companies combined received tax rebates totaling nearly $11 billion.
- Altogether, these companies spent nearly half a billion dollars ($476 million) over three years to lobby Congress—that’s about $400,000 each day, including weekends.
- In the three-year period beginning in 2009 through most of 2011, these large firms spent over $22 million altogether on federal campaigns.
See what I mean? Boring! Though we might occasionally muster a muted squeak of justifiable outrage, a dejected, cynical “what can ya do?” resignation among voters has rendered the topic of special interests largely academic. For a Republican politician, it’s much easier to get ’em riled up over God, guns, gays, and lest we forget, taxes.
The second reason integrity doesn’t sell is quite simply that it doesn’t pay. If Gov. Roemer voluntarily hobbles his own campaign by rejecting contributions not only from PACs but from so-called large individual donors, he is at a crippling disadvantage from the outset. $100 contributions don’t buy much respect when it comes to national television ad buys. And indeed, what special interest group would want to contribute to Roemer’s campaign anyway, in view of his distaste for their corrupting influence? If Roemer opted to accept such contributions “just this once” in an attempt to grasp the reins of power just long enough to institute reforms, who would believe that he was any different from any other double-talking politico?
So special interest and corporate influence grows, our individual significance in political campaigns shrinks, and shoestring soapbox campaigns like Roemer’s are doomed to failure. The only solution with any hope of truly halting this self-fulfilling prophesy—public campaign financing—is doomed for very much the same reason. What politician would fall on his sword for public campaign financing when massive corporate donations bought him or her a perfectly good House or Senate seat?
As a progressive, I’m used to being disappointed. Soaring rhetoric and grand promises capture the imagination, but the pulverizing crassness of Washington’s stultifying culture of articulate nonsense and silent power grabs tends to erode one’s ideals and inculcate a dreary resignation and grudging acceptance of Bismarck’s “art of the possible.”
I’m also used to being astonished (if such a thing is possible) by the outlandish and counterproductive policy prescriptions issuing from the modern-day Republican Party. For years, it’s been a never-ending torrent of WTF moments (and I don’t mean “Winning The Future,” or even “Well, That Figures”). That Stephen Colbert somehow manages to satirize such institutional buffoonery is testament to his brilliance.
I’ve been accused of being biased (guilty as charged!), but I refuse to succumb to the doctrinaire mental laziness that typifies the us vs. them shouting match we call “politics.” When a Republican candidate for President earns my respect and a passing chance at my vote, it gives me hope that I’ve managed to retain some objectivity despite the Republican Party’s war on their own reputation. However, Buddy Roemer’s quixotic campaign to restore our political system reminds me of how bad our entire political system really is and how quickly it’s worsening.
Put another way, Buddy Roemer has tied a knot at the end of my rope—but he has also shown me my noose.