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Let’s Go Back to the Days Before Money Was King

Some people may remember when candidates for president were chosen the summer before the election by political convention delegates, voting over and over until they agreed; when the campaigns began shortly thereafter on Labor Day, with the Democrat launching his at a rally in Detroit’s Cadillac Square; and when many complained that spending all of September and October politicking was too long.

Today, things are different. Nov. 2, 2004, will conclude two whole years of politicking, campaigning, raising outrageous sums of money, grandstanding, attacking records and exaggerating accomplishments.

The cost of even last November’s off-year elections -- for senators, representatives and governors -- was greater than the budgets of several middle-sized countries.

By the end of last month, the president, unopposed in the primaries, had collected $20 million; he is expected to raise $175 million or more.

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Why does it cost so much? Answer: Because of the millions that go toward buying television time, producing the commercials to put into that TV time, using polling and focus groups to identify your opponent’s weak points so you can exaggerate them when you produce the commercials to put into that TV time, and testing ads to see whether they work.

Last year, the off-year, money spent on TV spots broke a record. Next year, the presidential one, even more will be spent. And bet that the politicians will be shocked, shocked that the campaign reform law hasn’t changed much of anything.

The rich will still give big money and expect a return: a picture with the winner, a round of golf, a well-placed word in an important ear, a phrase quietly inserted in a law that could be worth millions.

So we will hear again all the denunciation and regret about what is happening to our democracy. The dispute over hard and soft money may use different words, but it will be just as loud and bitter. The average citizen again will feel it is not his or her vote that matters but other people’s thousands and millions, so why bother? Fewer than half of registered voters will vote, which editorial writers will deplore.

I once proposed banning all TV political ads. Presidents and congresses got elected before there was television; they could again. My idea angered old friends in the television industry, which stood to lose hundreds of millions of dollars. But it would end the fussing over soft money.

To people who said we couldn’t do that, I pointed out that tobacco ads were banned from television. It only requires convincing the Federal Communications Commission that TV political advertising endangers the national health. But no one listened. So I have another idea: Let’s bring back monarchy.

Kings don’t need campaign funds because kings don’t run campaigns. They are born to the job, which may not guarantee greatness, but do elections? What proof is there that Super Tuesday produces greater executives than heredity?

Not all kings will be good kings. Some kings squandered money on crazy schemes. Some made mistakes, then blamed their ministers for them. Some had mistresses. Some built extravagant monuments to brag about their puny achievements. But no king ever owed his job to sound bites, photo ops or 30-second attack commercials.

Reuven Frank is a former president of NBC News.


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