Gut check on presidential campaigns

American presidential campaigns are excruciatingly long, but they offer us a very thorough and extended look into our national psyche and the direction of our democracy.

This year, we’re already awash in Republican candidates challenging the Bush dynasty, and a curmudgeonly but principled Democratic socialist challenging the Clinton dynasty.

But the glaringly obvious problem is that on the Republican side, many months before the first primary, the field will be winnowed not by voters, but by the various candidates’ prowess at attracting big, early money.

Politico reports that “For a time, it looked like Bush would steamroll the GOP field with a cash-flush juggernaut that might raise as much as $100 million in the first quarter, using a variety of super PACs to push the boundaries of campaign finance laws and dominate the field. But that was before New York hedge fund magnate Robert Mercer pledged more than $15 million to Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio gained the full-fledged support of Miami billionaire Norman Braman and became the front-runner to win casino mogul Sheldon Adelson’s backing. Another rival, Scott Walker, recently became the favorite of billionaire David Koch, who seemed to tip his support for the Wisconsin governor at a fundraiser . . .”

This gambling den of big money donors is truly depressing. But it’s no more depressing than the New York Times report that Hillary Clinton’s campaign is likely to raise and spend $2.5 billion, including money spent by “independent” organizations. That, apparently, is the amount that might be needed to overcome the boxcar of political baggage she is dragging into this race.

So at this early stage, the campaign spotlight isn’t just on candidates; it’s on the sad state of campaign finance laws. The prospect of watching anonymous, big money manipulation of the election playing out in slow motion over the next year and half is appalling.

You would think we’d form large angry mobs and take up torches and pitchforks rather than let our democracy slip away in this rising tide of plutocratic campaign cash. So far, that just hasn’t happened. But perhaps this will be the campaign that finally so turns our stomachs we do something about our campaign finance system.

For several years, the brave souls of Move to Amend have been seeking to amend our Constitution to say that money is not speech, and corporations are not people. But this seems a quixotic project, because constitutional amendments are virtually impossible to achieve. They require passage by supermajorities in Congress and ratification by 38 state legislatures.

But a constitutional amendment seems no less a long shot than the purportedly more practical strategy of working for congressional action on other reform measures, possibly including full public financing of political campaigns.

At the moment, the deep dysfunction of Congress makes the success of either of those options seem about as likely as squadrons of pigs flying overhead. It’s this utter frustration that makes the fantasy of large angry mobs with torches and pitchforks come to mind.

But a lot can happen in the course of a long presidential campaign.

Perhaps by the end of this one, there will be such overwhelming public revulsion and disgust about the role of big, unaccountable money that voters demand pledges of real and enduring reform as the price of our votes. That is at least slightly more likely than flying pigs.