Among the six Democrats vying for the party's presidential nomination who debated last Sunday, the issue that created the most contention was not health care, economics, foreign relations or even trade. It was campaign contributions.
Jerry Brown, the former governor of California, created a stir when he implied that his opponents were bought and paid for by special interest groups. Mr. Brown focused his comments on contributions made by Political Action Committees, better known PACs, pointing out that General Electric, the parent company NBC Television which was broadcasting the debate, gave $350,000 in PAC contributions to federal elected officials.
Mr. Brown's jibes prompted a bitter response by Robert Kerrey, the U.S. Senator from Nebraska. "I've got to tell you I resent all the PAC and special interest stuff that you are putting out because you seem to be saying that I'm somehow bought and paid for."
Tom Harkin, the Iowa senator who fashions himself a populist, complained that taking PAC money from unions was much different from taking corporate PAC contributions.
While Mr. Brown believes he can score a lot of political points -- and his opponents seem to be rising to the bait -- by criticizing PACs, this type of special interest contribution is virtually irrelevant in the presidential nominating process.
At this stage of the campaign, the candidates are involved in an intense "money election," but the PAC contributions that loom so large in the public consciousness do not have much impact in the campaign treasuries.
It may be because contributions from PACs have so dominated congressional races that we have come to believe they also play an important part in presidential races.
But they don't. Out of the $29 million collected by Democratic presidential hopefuls in 1987, only about $745,000 came from PACs. Most business and labor groups pour their treasure into Congress, where the high rate of incumbency (96 percent in 1990) assures a minimum of wasted money.
PACs don't want to risk their money in presidential primary races where the outcome is so uncertain. Even if the PACs pick a winner, their impact is imperceptible (they are limited to giving $5,000 to each presidential candidate) in a primary campaign that will probably cost the winner more than $25 million.
Just because PACs as organizations don't play an important key role in the money raising process doesn't mean that the special interests sit out the presidential primaries. They just participate in different forms.
Michael S. Dukakis, for example liked to brag during his 1988 campaign he didn't take a "dime" of PAC money, but he did not deny himself money from the special interest groups. By the end of December, 1987, when his ratings in the polls were quite low, he had already raised about $146,000 from contributors in the Washington, D.C. area. The list of contributors included large number of lobbyists and influence peddlers -- the quintessential special interest groups Mr. Dukakis went to great lengths to deride.
With the exception of Mr. Brown, all of the current Democratic candidates are elected officials, which means they have easy access to contributions. As incumbents, they can attract money from people who gave to their previous races. In addition, contributors not only get an emotional high from support a local politician for the nation's highest office, they also are keeping an incumbent happy by giving him money. Even if the bid for the Democratic nomination fails, the money will ensure continued access to an important elected official.
Four years of ago, Mr. Dukakis' fund-raising efforts outstripped his opponents. His ability to raise a large amount of money from all over the country ensured his nomination.
His chief fund-raiser was Robert A. Farmer, the owner of a Massachusetts publishing company. Mr. Farmer, who is considered by many to be most inventive political fund raiser currently operating, recognized the existence of a new class of contributors -- which have been dubbed plump cats -- that were created when the federal campaign spending laws limited individuals to contribution a $1,000 to a candidate during the primaries.
The old days of locating fat cats, who would give hundreds of thousands of dollars to a candidate, have been replaced by people who can locate tens of thousands of "the grass-roots rich" who can afford to write out checks of $500 or $1,000 and still have money left over for vacations in balmy islands.
Mr. Farmer not only wanted to attract money from plump cats, he also wanted them to solicit $1,000 each from ten of their friends. These finance networks reach contributors through networks of neighbors and business associates. A candidate that can develop a nationwide system of networks stands the best chance of winning.