A selective guide to arts commentaries in print and websites elsewhere.
Introduction to Broad Street Review, plus biographies and contact points for our editors and contributors.
See a list of coming appearances by BSR's writers.
Max Frankel and ‘equality’ in campaign spendingBY: Dan Rottenberg 02.21.2012
In the name of fairness, Max Frankel wants to equalize political campaign spending. Any Philadelphian could tell him something about the unintended consequences of such a virtuous act.
What’s worse than big money in politics?DAN ROTTENBERG
Max Frankel, the retired executive editor of the New York Times, is a liberal whose heart is definitely in the right place. The late E. Digby Baltzell was a famous (and mostly conservative) sociologist at Penn who tended to listen to his head rather than his heart.
I assume they never met. Pity.
In a recent essay in the New York Review of Books, Frankel proposed what to him is an eminently sensible remedy for the tidal wave of campaign money that, he says, “distorts our politics, poisons our lawmaking, and inevitably widens the gulf between those who can afford to buy influence and those who can’t.” (For the full text, click here.)
Frankel’s solution— the “only one attractive remedy I know of,” he tells us— is this:
“Double the price of political commercials so that every candidate’s purchase of TV time automatically pays for a comparable slot awarded to an opponent. The more you spend, the more your rival benefits as well.”
Frankel concludes his pitch by asking, rhetorically, “Fairness, anyone?”
I think I know how Baltzell would have responded— the same way he responded to many other well-meaning proposals: “Beware the unintended consequences of virtuous acts.”
Lincoln vs. Hitler
The flaw in Frankel’s remedy lies in its implied assumption that the candidates in any given election will be more or less equal in terms of character and experience, so why not guarantee a level playing field among them?
But let us imagine a hypothetical election in which, say, Abraham Lincoln is running for president against Adolf Hitler. I prefer Lincoln not only because he strikes me as Lincolnesque, but also because Hitler strikes me as a genocidal maniac. But under Frankel’s proposal, the more money I contribute to Lincoln, the more Hitler will benefit as well.
Now let’s consider a real election: Philadelphia’s Democratic mayoral primary of 1999.
Five candidates entered that election. Three were black males (including the eventual winner, John Street). One was a white woman. Into this mix the party’s Fumo wing, fearing it would be shut out of the city’s patronage pie, put up a fraudulent candidate named Martin Weinberg.
I use the term “fraudulent” advisedly. Whatever one may have thought of the other four candidates, all of them had at least held public office, shouldered public responsibilities and taken public positions. Weinberg had spent his entire career as a behind-the-scenes adviser to real public politicians.
The Inquirer’s shining moment
The Fumocrats supported Weinberg (to the tune of $5.3 million) for just two reasons: First, they wagered that, as a white male, Weinberg would attract the lion’s share of voters who were uncomfortable with the notion of a black or female mayor; and second, they assumed that the media, in their obsession with “fairness,” would treat all five candidates as equally qualified for the mayor’s office.
The strategy almost worked: Weinberg finished second in that primary, just five percentage points behind John Street. To the Inquirer’s eternal credit, that paper refused to swallow the Fumo camp’s narrative and persistently portrayed Weinberg as an imposter among an otherwise qualified group of candidates. That may have made the difference.
To be sure, Weinberg outspent his opponents in that 1999 primary. If he’d been forced to give a dollar to his opponents for every dollar he spent, as Frankel proposes, maybe he wouldn’t have finished so high.
On the other hand, if the other four candidates had been forced to give Weinberg a dollar for every dollar they spent…. Do you catch my drift?
Memo to Max Frankel: If you’re upset about inequality in campaign spending, wait ’til you try equality.
Next question: Why do otherwise intelligent people like Max Frankel and the editors of the New York Review fall so easily for such magic potions?♦
Respond to this Article