Mark McKinnon — the Republican campaign consultant who helped create George W. Bush, and who for a time ran John McCain’s campaign — and I don’t agree about much. We do agree about the need for fundamental reform of the way campaigns are funded. About a year ago, I said to McKinnon that “the only way we win this issue is if a Republican makes it his.” “There’s only one Republican,” he said to me, “who could do that credibly, and he is not running.”
On Thursday, Buddy Roemer proved McKinnon wrong. In an event in Baton Rouge, Roemer announced that he was launching an exploratory committee to consider a run for the presidency. He also announced a campaign different from the campaign of every other candidate. A president, Roemer told his audience, “must be free to lead” — free of commitments to anything save the principles he commits to. So Roemer’s campaign will take no PAC money. It will take no more than $100 in contributions from any individual. And everyone who contributes anything regardless of how small will be disclosed. His will be the first true small dollar campaign for the presidency, and the first that is truly transparent. The single message he will preach is that (practically) every single problem that we as Americans face can be tied to the corrupting influence of money in politics. His success will turn on how powerfully he can prove that claim.
This is not the first time Buddy Roemer has run a campaign like this. When he was elected governor in Louisiana in 1987, there were no limits on contributions at all. Corporations as well as individuals could give as much to a campaign as they wanted, and those contributions were not disclosed. Roemer ran a campaign similar to the one he has announced for president — limiting the size and the source of the contributions he would take, and disclosing the name of every single contributor. He beat an incumbent (and later to be convicted for corruption) governor and changed the character of the governorship in Louisiana ever since.
I have no clue whether Roemer has a shot in what will certainly be an overcrowded Republican field. The odds are certainly against him. But for Republicans and Democrats alike (not to mention the Republic), let’s hope he has. For by focusing his campaign so clearly on money, Roemer will give America a chance to act on what three quarters of us already believe — that money buys results in our government, and that that corruption must be stopped if our government is to be controlled.
Pundits will sneer at this. Americans believe their government is corrupt, they will say, but Americans don’t put fixing that corruption anywhere near the top of their political wish lists.
So much is certainly true. But is that because America doesn’t care about the corruption that is our government, or because they don’t believe that any politician really intends to change it? And if a campaign made this issue — the one issue we all really agree about — the issue, and worked for the remaining 20 months of this campaign to show us how every problem that we see — from jobs to out of control government spending to regulatory policy gone nuts — is tied to this single issue, no one knows what happens then. Pundits look backwards. Some day they’ll explain how it happened. But don’t count on them to predict it.
Barack Obama also promised this sort of change. As he said in Philadelphia three years ago, “If we’re not willing to take up that fight,” — the fight to “change the way Washington works” — “then real change, change that will make a lasting difference in the lives of ordinary Americans, will keep getting blocked by the defenders of the status quo.” But when he became president, Obama gave up that fight. It was more important to him to play the game to get his policies through than to “change the way Washington works.”
That was an important betrayal. And the consequence of that betrayal today is that most Americans see change coming from the Right, not the Left. They see a Tea Party that has forced a Republican leadership, and therefore Congress, to give up earmarks. And they could now see the whole focus of a Republican campaign for the presidency tied to fundamental reform. The Republicans have stolen the ball, after the President fumbled it. Roemer is the clearest, and maybe just first, example of a Republican candidate to pick it up and run.
One hundred years ago, the last great Republican reformer, Teddy Roosevelt, said this:
The Republican Party is now facing a great crisis. It is to decide whether it will be, as in the days of Lincoln, the party of the plain people, the party of progress, the party of social and industrial justice; or whether it will be the party of privilege and of special interests, the heir to those who were Lincoln’s most bitter opponents, the party that represents the great interests within and without Wall Street which desire through their control over the servants of the public to be kept immune from punishment when they do wrong and to be given privileges to which they are not entitled.
Buddy Roemer repeated those words in his announcement Thursday. He reminded America that the fight that TR began still continues. And with that reminder, he made this a campaign worth fighting. For what’s at stake here is not just the choice of the Republican Party. It is the possibility that how they choose could once again force us to choose the reform we thought this President was about.