My Turn: A primary about big ideas instead of big money

Last modified: 3/22/2015 12:59:03 AM
Politics matter in the United States. Good politics are foundational to good public policy. They are the lifeblood of a healthy democracy where every vote counts and everyone’s voice is heard. Sadly, too many citizens choose to stay home on Election Day, and too many more who do go to the polls have less choice and less voice than they did in years gone by. This is especially true in presidential politics.

We have both been involved in several presidential campaigns on different sides of the political aisle. We, like many of you, have stood in living rooms on warm summer nights and jammed ourselves into town halls and basements to get a closer look at the candidates. We have asked tough questions or listened as others did. We have been asked for our vote on the receiving end of a warm handshake. We have pounded candidate signs into our front lawns and held them at polling places on bone-chilling Primary mornings.

Over the years, we have noticed a troubling change in the way campaigns are run. We remember when campaign contributions of $1,000 were considered “big money” and when presidential candidates with big ideas and small donations could actually run for office. Unfortunately, those days are long gone. Instead, the nominees of both parties are now expected to raise and spend billions of dollars apiece to run their national campaigns, most of it coming from a small number of major funders.

The “big money”, Left or Right, has little to do with the interests of ordinary Americans. It’s about special interests and partisan divisions. Every American, regardless of party, has skin in the game. Whether your issue is energy or education, deficits or drones, highways or health care, the vast sums of campaign cash are distorting public policy for conservatives and liberals alike. We cannot have good politics when campaigns are awash in special interest money and the voices of ordinary voters are drowned out. We cannot have good policy when politicians backed by “big money” do the bidding of their donors instead of the American people.

But the picture isn’t all doom and gloom. In January, we watched as hundreds of New Hampshire citizens of every political stripe braved the cold and the snow to walk more than 300 miles across the state as part of the “New Hampshire Rebellion” against big money in politics. Their walk made a statement to the presidential candidates and the national media that New Hampshire voters are not for sale. They promise to keep on walking until reform is won.

Motivated by their walk, we believe there is no better time or place to put the issue of money in politics on the national agenda than here and now during the New Hampshire primary. Few citizens have the “up close” privilege we do to vet the next leader of the free world. As such, we have a special obligation to raise the “big money” issue and insist on specifics, not platitudes. If we don’t ask the question, no candidate will voluntarily expose the pernicious influence of obscene amounts of money. We have to remind them that government in America isn’t about the politicians but the people.

When the presidential sweepstakes leave New Hampshire next February they become largely tarmac campaigns with staged debates, sound bites and endless television commercials run on “big money.” New Hampshire may be the only place where candidates are actually expected to interact with real people who can express real concerns and insist upon real answers. During this 100th anniversary year of the New Hampshire presidential primary, we all have a responsibility to make our voices heard – and the voices of millions of Americans across the country just like us.

We also have an opportunity to make our voices heard in the halls of our state Legislature, where lawmakers are considering a bipartisan resolution opposing the disastrous Citizens United Supreme Court decision that opened the floodgates to unlimited secret spending in elections. Sixty New Hampshire towns have already passed warrant articles calling on their state legislators to overturn Citizens United. It’s time our elected representatives heed their call.

Although we may not agree on some issues, we both believe there is nothing more destructive of good politics and good policy than secret special interest money in elections. Left unchecked, it will consume our electoral process and silence the voice of the people. We can begin to change the “big money” status quo by acting now. The value of the nation’s franchise depends upon the questions we ask of the presidential candidates and the actions we take in Concord. Silence will not serve the national interest.

(John Broderick is executive director of the Warren B. Rudman Center at UNH Law and was formerly chief justice of the N.H. Supreme Court. Brad Cook is a senior partner and past president at Sheehan Phinney Bass + Green. Both serve on the advisory board of Open Democracy in Concord.)

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