Money, Money, Money...and the Presidency

A million dollars.

That’s what it will reportedly take to make it into Hillary’s top tier of fundraisers. That’s 10 times what George W. Bush charged for membership in his top tier, but times have changed.

Here’s my prediction: it will be a crowd. The usual suspects and then some. There will be no shortage of would-be new best friends and best friends forever for the Former First Lady.

According to some of the folks I know who are getting the calls and e-mails, there’s nothing subtle about the pitch. The train is leaving the station. Don’t give to the other candidates. Now is the time to max out for both the primary and the general election, for both you and your partner, and grown children if you have them.

Do the math and it’s not even that difficult: $4,200 per person (that is for the primary and general) means $8,400 per couple, closer to 15 grand if you have a family. At that rate, all you need is 100 friends of your own to be one of Hillary’s best.

And why not? She’s the frontrunner, and this is what it costs. That’s the sad part.

There’s an old saying that money is the first primary. By all rights, Hillary should win it. If she didn’t, the press would be all over her, claiming it was a sign of weakness.

Besides, Obama shouldn’t be far behind. There’s plenty of money to be raised out of Chicago, where he has locked up everyone but Rahm Emmanuel, who got his start as a top aide and fundraiser for Bill Clinton. If Obama doesn’t win this time, he becomes the future frontrunner; he’s only 45, so investing in Obama is investing in the future.

And don’t count John Edwards out of the money primary. He’s the only one of the early leaders who’s done this himself before, which is itself an advantage. He’s ready to entertain: He could have his best friends over to his new 29,000 square foot house for an intimate get-together, in what my conservative buddy Michael Medved has termed “Uncle John’s cabin.” (What was Edwards thinking? The poverty candidate and his palace?)

As a former trial lawyer, Edwards has a “call” on one of the biggest donor groups on the Democratic side. He may not raise as much as Hillary, but he’ll certainly raise enough.

Having the most money doesn’t guarantee victory, but it sure beats trying to compete while counting your pennies. As between having more and having less, there’s no one in politics who wouldn’t rather have more. If Hillary didn’t take advantage of the assets she has, meaning the number of people who want to be her best friends, she’d be nuts.

The problem is that the system as a whole stinks, and million dollar bundlers (people who bundle checks together) are just as bad as million dollar donors, from the standpoint of the potential corruption of the system, and the candidate. What has happened, quite simply, is that the presidency is now officially for sale, not to the candidates but to the money people, who become far too important in the campaign.

You can’t help but be grateful to someone who gives you a million dollars. That’s inevitable. I used to keep a list in my middle drawer when I was running the show of people who had given my candidate one-tenth as much, to make sure I always knew to take their calls and at least pretend to care what they had to say.

But it was just that sort of gratitude that public financing was supposed to eliminate; it was both the appearance and the reality of corruption that lead the Supreme Court to uphold limits on contributions notwithstanding their impact on the First Amendment. But because the Supreme Court left too many other loopholes open, the system of public financing of presidential campaigns, which was supposed to limit (in the primaries) and eliminate (in the general election) the influence of private money in fact became vulnerable to the old fashioned money chase, with soft money, independent expenditures, and 527 groups making a mockery of the idea of limits.

And once the money chase really took off, it was inevitable that someone, Hillary or whoever, would recognize that she was better off opting out of the public system altogether, setting a million dollar goal for her top fundraisers, and replacing the old corrupt system with the new one.

The Court’s naiveté about how campaigns work provided the road map for circumventing the system, and Congress and the candidates have responded by making public financing little more than a partial subsidy. The question is whether anyone – and that includes the Supreme Court --will be outraged enough to do something to fix the system, or exact a political price for its destruction, or whether the powers that are will simply raise the goals for their own fundraisers.

My bet is that Hillary won’t be the only one who is surrounded by the million dollar club. She’ll just have the most friends.

Click here to read Susan's response to your email.

Click here to link to Susan's new book, "Soulless."

Susan Estrich is currently the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of Southern California and a member of the Board of Contributors of USA Today. She writes the "Portia" column for American Lawyer Media and is a contributing editor of The Los Angeles Times. She was appointed by the president to serve on the National Holocaust Council and by the mayor of the City of Los Angeles to serve on that city's Ethics Commission.

Estrich's books include the just published "Soulless," "Real Rape," "Getting Away with Murder: How Politics Is Destroying the Criminal Justice System," "Dealing with Dangerous Offenders," "Making the Case for Yourself: A Diet Book for Smart Women" and "Sex & Power," currently a Los Angeles Times bestseller.

She served as campaign manager for Michael Dukakis' presidential bid, becoming the first woman to head a U.S. presidential campaign. Estrich appears regularly on the FOX News Channel.

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