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The truth about political money

Obama and Romney will spend perhaps $5 billion, or only about 3% of all ad spending.

Back in the 1970s, the federal government set up a system for financing presidential campaigns. People could check a box on their income tax form, designating a buck or two (originally $1, now $3) to go into a presidential election fund. Once the two major parties had settled on nominees, the pot would be split and the candidates would each get a check. In exchange, the candidates had to agree to a limit on how much they would spend.

Through 2008, EVERY Republican and Democrat presidential candidate agreed to the spending limit and took the public financing, except one.

Barack Obama.

In 2008, Obama and his handlers determined that they could raise WAY more money than John McCain, and so they passed up the public financing, blew past the spending limit, won the presidency and inflicted their idea of “Hope and Change” on the American economy.

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I didn’t have a problem with that. I’ve always thought campaign spending limits were not only infantile, but a serious affront to the idea of free speech and the First Amendment. The Supreme Court has agreed, which is why spending limits have to be voluntary. A state cannot say to a guy running for governor, “You can only spend $4 million on this race.” They have to create a voluntary system that says, “If you agree to only spend $4 million, we’ll provide some of the money.” It has to be a carrot-and-stick approach, otherwise it violates the First Amendment. Barry chose to pass on the money and ignore the limit, and as I said, I have no problem with that.

What I DO have a problem with is this: Now it’s four years later, and it appears that the Romney team is going to be able to at least match the Obama money machine dollar-for-dollar, or maybe even raise more. Suddenly the liberals are absolutely wetting the bed again about “too much money in politics.” What they really mean is “We don’t have an advantage any more, so it’s not fair.”

What’s changed the landscape and become the left’s new boogeyman is a Supreme Court decision called Citizens United. In that case, the Supremes essentially removed limits on unions and corporations that wished to spend money to support or oppose various candidates. This had the effect of leveling a playing field that had been largely dominated by leftist groups, and it’s one of the reasons the Romney campaign will not enter the fall at a financial disadvantage.

(Side note: One of the left’s talking points on the night of the Wisconsin recall was that Citizens United had allowed Gov. Scott Walker to raise huge sums and “buy” the election. In fact, Citizens United had nothing to do with the race, and Walker’s ability to raise money was regulated by a Wisconsin state law specifically written – and passed by the Legislature on a bipartisan basis – to cover Wisconsin recall elections. But that didn’t stop the idiots on MSNBC and other places from repeating the lie. But I digress.)

What I’ve always thought interesting about presidential campaign spending is not how much we spend on the campaigns, but how little. Consider this:

In 2008, Obama and John McCain combined to spend about $2.8 billion on advertising. (Some sources will tell you the campaigns spent over $5 billion, but that’s total campaign spending – salaries, travel, office space, etc. – not advertising.)

To put that $2.8 billion number in perspective, consider this: That same year, Verizon, Sprint and AT&T spent about $5.6 billion advertising cell phone service. That’s right, just three companies spent DOUBLE the money spent by the presidential campaigns on advertising.

A little more perspective: Total advertising dollars spent this year – on everything from toothpaste to motor oil to fast food – will be somewhere a little north of $150 billion. Obama and Romney will spend perhaps $5 billion, or only about 3% of all ad spending.

Keep in mind that we’re debating some serious issues here. Who will hold the office of President of the United States? Who will be considered the Leader of the Free World? Will trillion-dollar deficits continue? Will Social Security and Medicare be reformed in time to save them from collapse?

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Pretty heavy stuff. And do we really want to say that by spending less than 4% of all the advertising dollars in America debating those issues we have too much political speech? Do we really want less public debate about who sits in the White House than we have about whether GEICO or Progressive saves you more on car insurance?

Look, I find a lot of political advertising irritating, distasteful and deceptive. But I can say the same thing about Charles Barkley hawking Weight Watchers. It doesn’t mean I get to have him silenced, it just means I can choose not to believe the message, or I can buy an ad promoting some other weight-loss scheme.

As George Will and others have eloquently written, the antidote to free speech you don’t like is not limiting speech, it’s having even MORE free speech.

The way in which we choose to spend our money is simply another way in which we exercise our First Amendment rights of free expression. And if George Soros chooses to bankroll the political left, or Sheldon Adelson opts to fund the political right, it’s all good. The next time you hear someone complain about “too much money” in politics, it’s likely that what they really mean is, “I don’t want those who disagree with me to have the same freedom of expression I do.”

This post was written by Tim Droogsma and originally published on Tim Droogsma’s Blog. Follow Tim on Twitter: @timdroogsma.

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