PHILADELPHIA—-Reporters at the Philadelphia Inquirer were surprised one noon recently when they saw Senator Arlen Specter (R-PA) campaigning for re-election between their desks. After having spent millions of dollars on television ads, he might have concluded that working reporters were about the only people likely to vote who had not seen his message on the tube.
Not far away, Rep. Bob Edgar, his opponent, was quoted as saying that his campaign finances were so small compared to Specter’s that he would have to raise on the average $5,000 an hour twenty four hours a day until the election to have a chance at reaching the voters with his message.
That’s campaigning — 1986 style. The electronic message is overpowering the grass roots message by its sheer power of saturation as against the limited ability of human beings to be in more than one place at a time. This reliance on television means a reliance on largely emotional 30 second messages with a heavy tilt toward imagery. John O’Toole, the former head of Foote, Cone and Belding, a major New York advertising firm, wrote a few years ago that he would ban such political ads as being inescapably distorted or deceptive.
O’Toole’s is a lone voice in the wilderness. His colleagues are too busy raking in large commissions from handling the television spots for candidates. In the New York Democratic primary for the U.S. Senate nomination, John Dyson paid his media adviser more than Mark Green, his opponent, spent on the entire primary campaign. Green won and declared it a victory of message over money. But Green’s win was and is a rare exception indeed.
All over the country, Senate races are starting to routinely cost five million or more per candidate. Most of that money goes to television. Gone are the storefronts, the precinct captains, the neighborhood activity in the cities for candidates. But, still, there are issues that reflect the often ignored voting records of incumbents or the divergence between the candidates’ philosophy or platforms.
There are, for example, significant differences between the voting records of Rep. Edgar and Senator Specter in the area of tax reform, consumer protection, budget bills and nuclear energy. On the key matter of Superfund — toxic waste cleanup legislation — Edgar and Specter differed in major ways about the citizens’ right to know or refinancing Superfund in 1984. The two men disagreed on telephone price policy and product safety issues. Specter leaned more toward the corporate side, while Edgar favored the consumers’ interest.
Yet, instead of this Senate race being a state-wide debate involving the citizenry, it is a race to raise more money for more 30 second television ads which would cater to the perceived short attention span of the viewing public. It is increasingly clear that, no matter how many running politicians grumble about the force of money in politics, very few of them make it a legislative reform issue once they make it to Congress. For, they are winners of the money game more often than not.
It is time for a deep self-analysis by voters and non-voters alike regarding their obligation to assert their presence and participation in cleaning up this increasingly dismal campaign finance mess. Otherwise, what Will Rogers, the Oklahoma humorist, said back in the Thirties, namely, that “Congress is the best money will buy,” will become a major understatement in the annals of political mirth and tragedy.