For those who believe money already has too much power in American politics, 2012 will be a miserable year. The Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, lassitude at the Federal Election Commission and the growing audacity of very rich conservatives have created a new political system that will make the politics of the Gilded Age look like a clean government paradise.
Americans won't even fully know what's happening to them because so much can be donated in secrecy to opaque organizations. It's always helpful for voters to know who is trying to buy an election, and for whom. This time, much of the auction will be held in private. You can be sure that the candidates will find out who helped elect them, but the voters will remain in the dark.
We do know that the playing field this year is tilted sharply to the right. Journalists often focus on the world of rich liberals in places such as Hollywood and Silicon Valley. But there are even more conservative millionaire and billionaire donors who hail from less mediagenic places. There is, for example, a lot of oil money in Texas. Then there's Wall Street. Once a bountiful source of Democratic as well as Republican cash, it has shifted toward the party of Mitt Romney, John Boehner and Mitch McConnell. And then there's Las Vegas casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, whose $10 million donation to the super PAC supporting Romney was reported Wednesday.
Republicans argue that turnabout is fair play. Barack Obama shunned the public financing system in 2008 and vastly outspent John McCain. Democrats, they say, are complaining now because they are at a disadvantage.
That's at best half right. It's true that Obama struck a blow against public financing, though the system was insufficiently financed and would eventually have collapsed under its own weight. And four years ago, Obama filled his coffers through the regulated system that limited the size of contributions and required disclosure. This year, there are no guardrails, no limits on what can be raised and spent. A remarkably small number of very wealthy people will be able to do what hasn't been done for generations.
And their influence will be especially large in congressional races where the outside groups can swamp what the candidates themselves spend. Those who claim that this is all about free speech need to explain how speech is free when one side can buy the microphone and can set the terms of debate, especially in contests below the presidential level.
What is to be done? The IRS could and should crack down on political committees legally disguised as "charities." The Federal Election Commission and Congress could promote disclosure. The Supreme Court could undo its error, or we could do it by embarking on the cumbersome process of amending the Constitution. Ultimately, we need to democratize the money chase by providing, say, 5-to-1 public matches for small donations.
But it's highly unlikely that any of this will happen before November, so here is a modest proposal: A small group of billionaires, aided perhaps by a few super millionaires, should form an alliance to offset the spending of the other billionaires and super millionaires. They might call themselves Billionaires Against Billionaire Politics. These public-spirited citizens would announce that they will match every penny raised by the various super PACs on the other side.
In principle, they could commit themselves to balancing off whichever side -- conservative or liberal, Republican or Democrat -- is dominating the airwaves and the fundraising. The idea would be to destroy the incentives for the very rich to buy the election. If shrewd wealthy people realized that every $10 million they put up would be met immediately by $10 million from the other side, they might lose interest in the exercise.
As a practical matter, it's conservative dollars that need to be offset, so this balancing act would likely be financed by non-conservatives. George Soros, Warren Buffett and New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg come to mind. But there may be other, less high-profile wealthy folks who want to do their patriotic bit. The hope is that this would be a one-shot deal. After one nuclear winter of an election, rich partisans could agree to mutual disarmament.
It's preposterous that our system has handed over so much power to those with large fortunes that the only way to get matters under control is to have one group of rich people check the power of another group of rich people. Maybe the absurdity of it all will finally force the Supreme Court and Congress to bring us back to something more reasonable. It's called democracy.