The Cost of Vacations and Elections

Washington was ablaze last week with temperatures soaring into triple digits and the intense humidity adding an extra level of misery to one of the hottest cities in the nation. That’s what my friends told me anyway. I was lucky to have escaped for the week, heading up to New Hampshire for the July 4th holiday on the seacoast with family and friends. I don’t think I was alone. It seemed that the campaigns were on hiatus for a bit and not much news emerged from either camp, though vacationing itself was a subject of some considerable media attention.

Mitt Romney was photographed atop a jet ski being driven by his wife, Anne. One commentator suggested the photo may be Romney’s John-Kerry-windsurfing moment, though conceded that the gasoline powered jet ski might make Romney appear somewhat more relatable than the aloof Kerry.

Meanwhile, the President wanted folks to know that he won’t be enjoying his traditional vacation this summer. For the past three years, President Obama took his family to Martha’s Vineyard for a working vacation. Perhaps not wanting photos surfacing of him enjoying himself on the elite Massachusetts island while the economy sputters, the President canceled his trip. He then reminisced with a crowd in Ohio of his humble family vacations as a kid, drawing a contrast to the photos emerging from Romney’s multi-million dollar estate in New Hampshire. From BuzzFeed:

“Maybe you took a vacation every once in a while. It wasn’t some fancy vacation at some fancy resort,” Obama said, drawing an implicit contrast to Romney’s current family vacation on the picturesque Lake Winnipesaukee in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire.

Obama recounted that the “best vacation I had when I was a kid” was traveling on trains and Greyhounds across the country, staying at Howard Johnson hotels.
“I was eleven, so there was any kind of swimming pool… it was very exciting,” Obama said. “You were very excited to go where the vending machine was and the ice machine and get the ice.”

Romney, perhaps in response, said this:

“You know I’m delighted to be able to take a vacation with my family,” Romney replied, “I think all Americans appreciate the memories they have with their children and their grandchildren. I hope more Americans are able to take vacations. And if I’m president of the United States, I’m going to work very hard to make sure we have good jobs for all Americans who want good jobs and as part of a good job the capacity to take a vacation now and then with their loved ones.”

The real issue here isn’t vacationing, but money: who has it, where they keep it, how they get it, and its role in the campaign.

Money talk

If money is speech, what is our society saying when we spend hundreds of millions, if not close to a billion dollars, electing a leader? Is it because we want security and some basic welfare programs, or is there something else at stake?

Over these next several weeks, both candidates will travel across the country raising record amounts of cash. In the 2008 contest, Obama was a fundraising juggernaut, raising more money than any other candidate in U.S. history. It was thought that his Midas touch would be unmatchable in 2012. But Romney’s managed to outraise the President in the most recent quarter. From The Washington Post:

The Romney campaign announced Monday that it raised an eye-popping $106 million last month in conjunction with the Republican National Committee, compared to just $71 million announced by Obama and the Democratic National Committee. The $35 million gap is wider than it was in May, when Romney and his party allies raised $17 million more than the Democratic side.

Where is Romney getting this cash? He flitted off to the Hamptons for a weekend fundraiser, where those in attendance had plenty of jaw-dropping advice for their presumptive nominee:

A New York City donor a few cars back, who also would not give her name, said Romney needed to do a better job connecting. “I don’t think the common person is getting it,” she said from the passenger seat of a Range Rover stamped with East Hampton beach permits. “Nobody understands why Obama is hurting them.”

“We’ve got the message,” she added. “But my college kid, the babysitters, the nails ladies — everybody who’s got the right to vote — they don’t understand what’s going on. I just think if you’re lower income — one, you’re not as educated, two, they don’t understand how it works, they don’t understand how the systems work, they don’t understand the impact.”

Thanks to a ruling from the Supreme Court, election year spending records will be smashed in 2012 and the very wealthy will have supersized influence. It seems that many of those privileged donors prefer the Republican Romney, but money is flying into campaign coffers on both sides.

As the rich nudge out the poor and middle class from the political process, are we losing an important voice? What are the ethical concerns of consolidating power at the top, and allowing money to have such a role in the electoral process?

And more practically for most of us, what does it say about our priorities that we give so much to campaigns? After all, most of President Obama’s money and much of Romney’s come from small donors. Are we hoping for transformative change through our political leaders and eager to contribute it some way? Is this realistic?

If money is speech, what is our society saying when we spend hundreds of millions, if not close to a billion dollars, electing a leader? Is it because we want security and some basic welfare programs, or is there something else at stake? Why are the wealthy so involved in this cycle, to strengthen the common good, or to protect personal wealth?

There are many difficult questions about the role of money in the political process. Taking time to explore what we are trying to achieve with our contributions may be fruitful on the individual level, and it is imperative we hold a national conversation about the detrimental effects of billion dollar campaigns on a society.