Monday, June 30, 2008

Is Politics All About Money?

I got a surprising letter from John McCain today.

It was just two weeks ago that I wrote that money isn’t as important in politics as it used to be. Case in point: McCain, in some ways the most underfunded candidate in the primaries, came out the winner of the Republican primary season.

But in his letter to me (and if he sent this letter to me, I have to imagine he sent it to at least 50 million other American voters), McCain says that money is everything in politics.

McCain says he is desperately far behind in his campaign. He needs a minimum of $21.5 million in donations in July, he says. This is, he says, “a critical funding goal that I must meet to keep my campaign on track and get my message to the voters as we move into the next phase of the election cycle.” If he falls short, “the outcome of the election could well be determined” right then. Why, if he gets to the end of July with only $21,499,999, McCain might as well pull out of the race.

I am not about to send any money to McCain — or to any other candidate in a November election when it is only the beginning of July. But I do have a suggestion to offer.

Why not let the voters decide?

The way political strategists see it, McCain probably is right about being desperately behind. McCain cannot even pretend to be a liberal on the issues people care about, so he has little hope of matching the popular appeal of “one of the most liberal people sitting in the United States Senate today.” Four out of five political strategists would agree that McCain’s promise, repeated in the letter, never to pull U.S. forces out of Iraq probably does make it hard to get voters to pay attention to his views on the other, more important issues in the campaign. In a year when most voters are looking for massive change, it is hard to put together a winning strategy for a candidate who keeps promising more of the same.

But still, pulling out of the race at the end of July is not the answer. And it’s not the right way for a candidate to be thinking about an election.

Because the election is ultimately not decided by political strategists. It is decided by voters. And not in July, but in November.

And quite frankly, a three-page letter that mentions voters only twice while mentioning money 20 times, in almost every paragraph, might give some voters the impression that a candidate cares more about money than about voters. Ten times more.

McCain might want to think about that. It is possible to make the voters feel like they are just as important as the people who write the checks. Even a candidate who is “stuck in a ‘catch up’ mode, scrambling to find supporters, scraping together resources and playing defense” can make voters feel like they have a reason to vote. But a letter that says, “money, voters, money, money, money, money, money, money, money, money, money, money, money, money, money, money, money, money, money, money, voters . . . P.S. money,” doesn’t get it done.