There’s money to burn in political campaigns

Casino mogul Sheldon Adelson writes a $10 million check to a super PAC that supports Republican Mitt Romney.

Actor George Clooney hosts a dinner for President Obama that nets $15 million.

So far, the 2012 presidential election is less about the state of the economy for the 99 percent and more about the political influence of the 1 percent.


To average voters, money is money. It looks the same, whether it’s going from a billionaire like Adelson to an outside group like Restore Our Future; or going directly to the Obama campaign, from celebrities like Clooney, or from those who paid $40,000 a plate at a New York dinner hosted by Vogue editor Anna Wintour and actress Sarah Jessica Parker.

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A casino mogul with a conservative economic agenda has different goals than a celebrity with a liberal social agenda. But it’s wrong if money is what gives someone an edge in pushing his agenda.

Is one donor source worse than the other? To some degree, yes. A $10 million mega-check buys a lot more access than a measly $40,000 dinner tab. And, a $10 million check to a super PAC can do a lot more damage via negative advertising that helps a candidate, while allowing that candidate to keep a safe distance from the attacks. Also, the groups paying for them do not have to disclose their donors.

But from Adelson to Wintour, the endless hunt for cash highlights a campaign finance system everyone agrees is broken but no one wants to fix.

The Supreme Court deserves its share of blame for its decision in Citizens United versus Federal Election Commission. That smoothed the way for super PAC spending, by ruling that corporations, like people, have First Amendment rights and political advertising is one way to express them.


But candidate Obama’s decision back in 2008 to opt out of public financing is just as much to blame for the current state of campaign finance. When Obama became the first presidential candidate to forgo the public financing system in the general election, he said it was a hard, but necessary decision, driven by his opponent’s fundraising potential. But it was actually driven by his then-superior ability to raise hundreds of millions in small donations from average voters who fell in love with hope and change. In the end, more people gave to the Obama campaign than to any campaign in history. According to post-election 2008 campaign finance reports, Team Obama raised $770 million, from close to 4 million individual donors. John McCain, the GOP’s 2008 nominee, raised $238 million and also received $84 million from the public financing system.

The passion for Obama has cooled. For now, Romney is out-raising him, leading Democrats to panic. Obama once denounced the Citizens United ruling, but his campaign embraces a Democratic super PAC, Priorities USA.

Until recently, Democratic donors were cool to the pro-Obama super PAC. But the New York Times recently reported that three $1 million contributions in May increased its bottom line. Democrats argue that it takes millions to fight millions. But it’s harder to take the high road when you’re basically traveling the same road as Adelson — just headed in a different direction.

The solution is hard to figure. After Obama walked away from public financing, who is going to walk back? Getting cash-strapped media outlets to forgo the bonanza revenue of political advertising also seems unlikely.

Sounding a little bit like the McCain of old, the GOP’s 2008 presidential nominee criticized Adelson’s $10 million contribution, as well as the Citizens United decision. “We need a level playing field and we need to go back to the realization that Teddy Roosevelt had: that we have to have a limit on the flow of money and that corporations are not people,” McCain said in a PBS interview.


Those are the thoughts of a former presidential candidate. The current ones are otherwise engaged in the joyless pursuit of cash.

This weekend, Romney’s biggest donors and fundraisers are hanging out in Utah’s exclusive Deer Valley resort, where Romney is scheduled to give a speech and attend a cookout. On Monday, Obama plans to return to Boston and his faithful base of donors.

The rich, with money to burn, will fuel an election season where everyone else just feels burned.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter@Joan_Vennochi.