Let the voters, not money, do the talking

By Hank Nichols, Globe Correspondent, 10/31/99

t did not exactly shake New Hampshire to its political roots when Elizabeth Dole dropped out of the Republican presidential primary, but more than a few people were disturbed by her departure and its implications.

Here's what Dole said when she called an end to her exploratory bid for the Republican nomination: ''The current political calendar and election laws favor those who get an early start and can tap into huge private fortunes or who have a preexisting network of political supporters.'' It's not too hard to figure out to whom Dole referred - Steve Forbes and George W. Bush.

To be fair, Dole's problems were not exclusively financial. New Hampshire has been tough on the Doles, although both Elizabeth and Bob enjoy a good deal of popularity here. Four years ago Pat Buchanan gave Bob Dole a wake-up call by beating him in the state's primary. This year, Elizabeth Dole failed to light any fires among the state's Republicans and had drawn only modest support. But she was a good candidate, a breath of fresh air in the Republican field. And, I don't want to belabor the obvious, but - she is a woman, and it was great having a woman run for president.

Money has dominated the 2000 primary season. Bush is closing in on $60 million; Forbes has more than $20 million to pump into his political aspirations. The other Republicans are in the single digits, ranging from John McCain's $9.4 million to Orrin Hatch's $1.3 million.

But let's face it - money is nothing new to politics, so what's the problem?

There are a few:

Good candidates are getting steamrollered by big money. In addition to Dole, John Kasich, Lamar Alexander and Dan Quayle have quit the race because they couldn't compete with the big-money candidates. It would have been nice to see these candidates stay in the race at least through the primary to get a realistic sense of their popularity with voters. New Hampshire's Republicans won't get a chance to say how they feel about these four.

Money is a distraction. People running for public office have to spend more of their time raising money instead of doing their jobs. Even worse, raising money has become their job. That's not what we elected them to do.

People of more modest means feel disenfranchised. We are out of the loop. We distrust the system, believing that money has corrupted it. While running for Congress last year, Mary Rauh hit the nail on the head when she said if people in the private sector behaved like some politicians, they'd be imprisoned for taking bribes.

The US Supreme Court has agreed to take another look at campaign contribution limits after ruling in 1976 that such limits violated First Amendment rights. While hearing oral arguments in the case, Justice David Souter said, ''Most people assume, and I certainly do, that someone making an extraordinarily large contribution gets something extraordinary in return,'' the New York Times reported. What many people need and want, Souter said, is ''a political system in which there is some basic level of confidence on the part of those governed.''

We are becoming a nation of cynics. We are losing faith.

Lack of money may force some candidates out of the race, but having plenty to spend does not guarantee success. It seems unlikely that Forbes's millions will buy him the nomination. And, for all his millions in the bank, Bush still faces a tough race with McCain nipping at his heels.

There are plenty of problems with the primary process, but there are some good things to say about it too. There has been a steady stream of candidates coming to New Hampshire this time, and their public exposure has not been limited to TV ads. The local media do a fine job of covering campaigns, asking relevant, issue-oriented questions. We read about, hear and see the candidates with great frequency. Retail politics can still make a difference in this state.

There have been candidate forums at UNH and Dartmouth, and more are planned between now and Feb. 1. New Hampshire voters have been given many opportunities to do some comparative shopping.

As long as New Hampshire matters to the candidates, the state's primary will still have significance. The weeding out now happens before primary election day, but New Hampshire still plays a role in the process.

But the system is badly flawed and it will take a major surgery to cut out the spreading cancer of big money and the corruption that we all sense goes with it. The Granite State Clean Elections Campaign and efforts like it in other states offer a way out. Voluntary public financing of elections can level the playing field a bit. Maine and Vermont have adopted voluntary public financing in state elections, and we could do the same.

Would similar public financing work in federal elections? It's worth a try. Big money now has a stranglehold on politics and politicians. We have to find a way to break out of its grip, and voluntary public financing would make it possible for those who now are dropping out to stay in the race and let the voters, not money, decide if they have anything to offer.

Hank Nichols is assistant professor of journalism and writing at New England College. He lives in Sutton.