Ms. Elizabeth Dole last week ended her trailblazing bid for the U.S. Republican Party’s presidential nomination. Hers was the first serious run for the presidency by a woman in either party. Yet Ms. Dole’s withdrawal from the race highlights not only the failure of American voters to take a woman candidate seriously, but also a factor even more important than sex in U.S. politics — money.
Admittedly, her candidacy was always a long shot. Ms. Dole, who left her job as president of the American Red Cross to run, served as secretary of labor and transportation in Cabinets during the 1980s and was also a member of the Federal Trade Commission. That she was best known as the wife of Mr. Robert Dole, the former Senate leader who captured the GOP nomination in 1996 and was beaten by President Bill Clinton, is a sad — but telling — commentary on the state of women in American politics. Most observers calculated that Ms. Dole was campaigning for the vice-presidential slot, even though she hotly denied the suggestion.
Her withdrawal was unexpected. Ms. Dole surprised poll watchers by finishing third in the Iowa straw poll in August. While that might not have been enough to rejuvenate a flagging presidential bid, it was thought to have given her hope for a slot on the final ticket, especially if the GOP was serious about wooing moderate voters.
In her withdrawal speech, Ms. Dole was frank about why she was ending her campaign. “The bottom line is money,” she said. “It would be futile to continue.” She is the fifth candidate to leave the race this year, and the third to acknowledge that the war chest of the front-runner, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, makes him almost unbeatable. Finance reports show that Ms. Dole raised more than $1 million from July to September, while Mr. Bush upped his bank roll by $20.2 million during the same period. The governor now has a record $57 million to spend on his bid for the White House.
Money does not make the candidate. The failed bids of Mr. Ross Perot and Mr. Steve Forbes, each of whom spent a considerable chunk of their own fortunes financing their campaigns, testify to that. Mr. Bush would not be able to raise such staggering sums if he was not electable.
Nonetheless, there is reason for concern: A nomination can take on an air of inevitability. The appearance of being unbeatable can make a candidate virtually unbeatable. (Campaigns can still be lost, however.) In so doing, a vacuum is created, as the front-runner sucks up all the money that other candidates might have received. That deprives voters of a full airing of the issues and the opportunity to assess candidates, their positions and their ability to perform under pressure.
Mr. Bush may have two terms as governor under his belt, but the meaning of his “compassionate conservatism,” as well as the rest of his platform, is still a mystery. Of course, there are good reasons for a potential nominee to remain vague during a campaign — especially for Republicans who must bridge the yawning divide between the left and right wings of their party — but that means voters will not know who they are voting for. While debates between nominees can fill the gap, it is hard to believe that a country is not well-served by vigorous political debate throughout the campaign.
While U.S.-style campaigns have a distinctive look and feel — and appeal, given the ease with which U.S. consultants are now finding work overseas — the distortions introduced by money are not solely an American problem. Japan’s own politicians are well-known for their expertise in fundraising, and a scandal or two is sure to enliven most campaigns.
The problem for the United States is that reform seems impossible. As Ms. Dole bowed out of the race, Republican senators were killing another bill that would have changed the fundraising law. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that campaign contributions constitute a form of speech and hence are protected under the U.S. Constitution.
That bill was cosponsored by Mr. John McCain, the Arizona maverick who has vowed to make campaign-finance reform a centerpiece of his run for the presidency. It is an admirable platform, but it is likely to be a futile effort.
While American voters say that they are concerned about the role money plays in U.S. politics, those same voters have not made campaign finance an issue. Instead, they opt out, leaving the politicking to the people who truly care about issues — especially those who care enough to donate money. The irony is that money does not buy a vote; it does not have to. It only has to get a contributor in the door. Apathy usually takes care of the rest.
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