Money Changes Everything

In assessing presidential hopefuls, the media place one qualification above all others: the ability to raise dough

I don't know of any polls showing what journalists really think about the role of money in American politics. I do know that when the subject comes up informally among media types, a pretty strong consensus usually emerges: The system is rotten and needs to be fixed.

Newspaper editorial pages reflect this view. With just a few exceptions, the big American broadsheets have spent years calling for campaign finance reform, often indignantly. Journalists fell in love with John McCain back in 2000 in large part because he championed that cause.

Knowing all this, it's very strange to see how American news outlets are covering the current presidential contest. For a profession so deeply worried about the corrupting influence of money, we spend an awful lot of time and energy pumping the fundraising angle -- not just following the money, as we should, but allowing money to dominate and frame the entire conversation about who should run the country.

Watch the coverage closely and it becomes clear that in tracking and assessing presidential candidates, the media place one qualification above all others: the ability to raise dough. The more of it a candidate raises, the more seriously he or she is taken by the mainstream media. It's that simple. The same profession that denounces the campaign fundraising system plays a huge role every day in reinforcing the power of that system.

The last few weeks have seen a new wave of money-obsessed coverage. The end of June brought the close of another three-month period for which candidates must report their fundraising take. In the money-driven world of political news, these mileposts have become as important as any debate or primary, and this time there was a shocker.

"Vermont Gov. Howard Dean surged to the front of the pack of Democratic hopefuls yesterday -- and Sen. Joe Lieberman showed signs of choking early -- as the bellwether fundraising numbers came in," reported the New York Daily News on July 1. "Dean raised almost $7 million in the last three months and stunned the other campaigns and political analysts."

Not to mention the media people who think more and more like campaign professionals. Behind this and similar stories, you could hear the wheels turning inside the media's jaded collective brain. Whoa, 7 million bucks. Howard Dean's a player!

The next day, The Washington Post said as much on its front page: "Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean has tapped a lucrative vein of discontent in the American electorate in his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination.... Almost overnight, Dean has redrawn the contours of the Democratic race, vaulting from dark-horse candidate to top tier on the strength of an extraordinary, Internet-based fundraising operation and the mobilization of party activists."

The following day, The New York Times sealed Dean's new status with a front-pager of its own. "Howard Dean ... raised substantially more money this quarter than all his more established opponents in the Democratic presidential contest, according to figures released today," the story began. "The result forced Dr. Dean's rivals to reconsider how to deal with an opponent they had until now viewed as little more than an irritant."

Several paragraphs down, The Times gave readers a telling glimpse into the media-age alchemy that turns political donations into electoral gold: "The second-quarter fundraising reports offered an early measure of the strength of the Democratic field seven months before the first primary. While the differences might amount to only a few hundred thousand dollars, the candidates' success at drawing contributions helps build early impressions about their viability among Democratic delegates, elected officials, union leaders and, inevitably, journalists, whose reports on fundraising help create those critical impressions."

It was an interesting moment, at once self-referential and vaguely guilt-ridden. It was like a product warning: The story you are now reading was written for insiders by insiders. Like other media outlets, this newspaper is suddenly taking a candidate more seriously because he raised a lot of money. Proceed at your own risk.

Maybe this is all inevitable. Candidates have always relied on money to get elected, and it would be irresponsible of journalists to ignore this reality. If the Democratic Party now sees Howard Dean as a contender because he tapped into that "lucrative vein of discontent," as The Post's Dan Balz nicely put it, then the public ought to know about it. Lucrative discontent is intrinsically more impressive than unlucrative discontent. It means that people are putting their money where their mouths are.

Still, there's an unsettling, through-the-looking glass quality to the whole business. Should fundraising prowess trump everything else in the coverage of presidential contenders? If a candidate isn't good at persuading people to write checks, does that mean, ipso facto, he'd be bad at running the country? How does a profession that worries so much about the role of money in politics square that position with its own daily complicity in the game?

In a long interview I had with Howard Dean last year, he predicted that no matter what ideas and experience he brought to the table, he wouldn't be taken really seriously by the politico-media establishment until he'd mastered the fundraising game. Since then, he's enjoyed a lot of positive coverage, but none of those front-page, paradigm-shifting stories in which the news class clears it throat and announces: "America, this could be your next president."

Until now. And it only cost $7 million. Dr. Dean may be even smarter than we realized.