SALINA, Kan. - It must have been the title of the book that caught my eye. I've always enjoyed wandering through bookstores and their stacks of hidden treasures. One day in Rio de Janeiro years ago I was indulging in this favorite pastime when I came across a book entitled Fidel & Religion, by a Brazilian priest named Frei Betto. Maybe its odd title was too intriguing to pass up, and I bought it.
The book was the result of conversations that Betto had with the Fidel Castro over a couple days in Havana back in the mid-1980's. It didn't change any of my negative impressions of Cuba from a previous visit, but the work did offer interesting insights into the Cuban leader's thinking.
One particular point from the book has returned to mind frequently in recent years. When asked about the lack of democratic elections in Cuba Castro defended his system and criticized the influence of money and special interests in American elections. His criticism was legitimate this time.
The U.S. Congress has become increasingly dysfunctional. No one seems willing to compromise for the greater good. Much of the reason points back to the chase for campaign cash. Given that over half of the monies many congressmen use to fund their campaigns come from special interest PAC's, it shouldn't come as much of a surprise that the pursuit of PAC money increasingly trumps the search for good public policy. With discipline-enforcing party leaders controlling the spigots for special interest donations members are less and less willing to reach out to the other side in search of common ground.
And then there's our Presidential race. Instead of preparing for grassroots Tea Parties this year Republicans spent the second week of April marking the coronation of Mitt Romney as their presumptive nominee. On April 11th rival Rick Santorum dropped out of the race, effectively handing the nomination to the former Massachusetts' governor. Could it be that big money triumphed over grassroots campaigning?
Indeed, one could argue that Romney won the nomination by winning the battle of the Super-PACs. 2012 will mark the first year that our citizenry will feel the full effects of the Citizens' United Supreme Court decision that allowed corporations to spend unlimited amounts on political campaigns. Disclosure requirements seem to be somewhere between lax and non-existent.
Romney's better-funded super PAC, "Restore our Future," carpet-bombed his nearest opponent of the week with attack ads. When rivals complained he feebly noted that a candidate is not supposed to have contact with or coordinate advertising with super-PAC's. How long will candidates have to say that with a straight face?
The brave new world of super-PAC's ushered in one particularly notable distortion this spring. Newt Gingrich, who won only two primaries, was able to continue his campaign long past where it should have ended based on voters' judgment. As long as Nevada billionaire Sheldon Adelson continued funding his "Winning our Future" super-PAC Gingrich continued campaigning.
President Obama has criticized the Citizens United ruling early and often. But he also recognizes the new reality created by the court decision. The Obama campaign has helped launch "Priorities USA Action," which will assist in making the case for another term for the President.
Wall Street Journal correspondent Jeremy Singer-Vine is making a credible effort to track Super-PAC spending this election cycle. But the spending numbers listed on the page seem to sanitize this type of activity. For the television viewer buried in attack ads no relief will be in sight until November 6th, especially for those with the misfortune to live in a swing state.
There's got to be a better way to elect our leaders. The Founding Fathers can be forgiven for not envisioning television, radio, PAC's and Super-PAC's when they wrote our Constitution and enshrined our commitment to free speech in the First Amendment. But we're evolving towards the best government that special interest money can buy.
The brittle system developed by the Castro brothers will disintegrate upon their passing. Hopefully we can update our system to accommodate the realities of the 21st century and make our government more responsible to its citizens.