Who Bought Your Candidate?

March 29, 1992|By THOMAS FERGUSON

In an early Democratic debate, Jerry Brown raised the issue of the corrupting influence of campaign contributions. An angry Bob Kerrey retorted, "Are you saying that I am bought and paid for?"

The sophisticated response might have been: "No -- and so much the worse for your campaign." Poorly financed, Mr. Kerrey was the first to drop out.

It is a simple fact that all the burning issues of the election -- free trade or protection, health insurance, income distribution, the future of U.S. production, the cities -- are critically important not only to voters, but to well-organized special interest groups and businesses. And that many such groups invest massively in candidates.

Remarkably, however, the armies of people who live by words have been unable to come up with more than catch phrases about money in politics. At best, they speak -- sometimes in awed tones -- of fund-raising totals.

For broaching the finance issue, Jerry Brown was ridiculed by Democratic party leaders, the other candidates, and the press. The networks, who have surely done more to lower public standards of taste in the last half century than any group this side of Las Vegas, and party leaders, who virtually without exception double as handsomely remunerated lobbyists, even claimed that a mere mention of Mr. Brown's 800 number for small donors during televised debates would demean the campaign.

Now, Bill Clinton, who has raised far more money than any other Democrat, and undoubtedly remains the overwhelming favorite of the business groups active in the party, has jumped far out in front of everyone else by running to the left of former Sen. Paul Tsongas, who called himself a "pro-business liberal."

On the Republican side, millions upon millions of dollars are flowing to both George Bush and Patrick Buchanan, although the electoral results suggest that literally no one ("uncommitted") can draw about a third of the Republican primary electorate in a race with the president, and that spending hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of unsubtly coded commercials attacking minorities, foreigners, the National Endowment for the Arts, etc., adds at best six or seven percent more to the total.

There is nothing very subtle about where most of this money -- which comes overwhelmingly in the form of contributions from individuals, not political action committees (PACs) -- is going.

The great bulk of American business, in particular, a vast cross section of America's multinational giants, is massed firmly behind one and only one candidate: President Bush.

Viewed systematically -- through, for example, an inventory of "early" (before the end of 1991) contributions by leading business figures that I undertook as part of the research for this essay -- the size of the president's advantage is breathtaking. Long before the primaries started almost a fifth of the sample had already contributed to the president's re-election campaign -- a truly remarkable rate, considering that far and away the most money piles up as the primaries actually get under way.

No one else is even close. Mr. Clinton, who clearly comes next in the affections of this group of major investors, trails far behind, while Mr. Buchanan barely shows.

This Golden Horde of Bush backers includes top executives in oil companies such as Exxon and Amoco; international banks (Chase, Chemical/Manufacturers Hanover, many investment houses (Morgan Stanley, Merrill Lynch, Nomura Securities) and a long list of firms in manufacturing, food and defense (IBM, General Electric, Rockwell, Motorola, and yes, Ford and even Lee Iacocca, who after the Japan debacle may want his money back) plus many utilities and service firms.

They appreciate the administration's many efforts in support of the global integration of markets for goods, capital and -- much more quietly -- people. When, for example, The Wall came tumbling down, and the administration made its historic decision to support a rapid reunification of Germany (with the understanding that the new economic giant would see to it that Europe would remain open to American firms and that NATO would continue to underpin the region's security), they applauded. As the administration sought to liberalize the Japanese economy -- particularly its financial markets, now the largest in the world -- at the cost of inviting and defending Japanese trade and investment in America, they sometimes grumbled, but mostly backed it.

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