What Trump Can't Buy
A Catch of the Weekend to Tim Fernholz at Quartz, who told us why Donald Trump is "exactly the kind of rich person politicians love to fool."
Fernholz starts with Trump's claim that Bill and Hillary Clinton attended his (most recent) wedding, in 2005, because he contributed to their campaigns. If that's all Trump got for his money, it's pathetic, as numerous people pointed out after he bragged about this at the Republican debate on Thursday night. Even the most vigilant good-government types are unlikely to believe that attending a wedding is a republic-threatening case of corruption.
We don't know if there was more to it than that or, for that matter, if the Clintons would have attended even if he hadn't been a donor.
Yes, the political system as a whole tends to respond more to the wealthy than to other citizens. But it's hard to find any evidence of a quid pro quo for campaign contributions. It's possible that politicians respond to business leaders because they genuinely believe (correctly or not) that the private sector knows how best to improve the economy.
There is a distinction between campaign donations and lobbying. Even if business interests don't always get their way, we know that lobbying can get results. As Fernholz says, the wealthy are most likely to win victories is specific cases where the public isn't engaged and when press coverage is negligible or nonexistent.
We know that lots of money spent to influence politicians, whether through campaign contributions or lobbying, is wasted. Think, for example, of the millions of dollars wealthy donors poured down the drain on Newt Gingrich's pointless campaign for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination.
I'm not saying that it isn't a challenge to get politicians to be as responsive to all citizens as they are to the rich. But an obstacle to solving this problem is the knee-jerk assumption that the rich can simply buy whatever they want, whenever they want it, in the current system. This simply isn't true, and reform won't get anywhere unless it addresses what's actually going on.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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Jonathan Bernstein at firstname.lastname@example.org
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