While all the figures aren't in and almost certainly never will be, the Center for Responsive Politics has estimated that roughly $6 billion was spent on the 2012 election, including $2 billion on the presidential contest and something on the order of $4 billion on congressional and state races.
This gives us, I suppose, the best government money can buy — which is certainly not the best we could have.
When I say what was spent, what I really mean is what was raised. While there are typically a few wealthy candidates who largely finance their own campaigns (whoever thought the richest candidate would turn out, in this topsy-turvy world, to be the most independent), most of the money responsible for the awful ads and the endless mailings and the like is raised from people and corporate PACs with every reason to give, as well as corporations who are now free to spend unlimited sums.
For those who say disclosure is the best (and only feasible) protection against corruption, it's worth pointing out the new scam on the block: "GPS" groups pioneered by Karl Rove and now duplicated by the president's supporters that don't even have to disclose the multimillion-dollar contributions they receive.
Why, one of my students asked me, do people donate this kind of money to politics? You could bring healthcare to tens of thousands of children in the world, build schools for impoverished kids, help seniors living on fixed incomes, clean up dumpsites, fund medical research, do any number of things that would make the world a better place as opposed to another negative ad.
There are some people who give money because they truly believe in causes like these. They believe that supporting candidates is the best way to further such goals.
But in my experience, which is overwhelmingly supported by the numbers, most of the money in politics is based on more selfish concerns. Banks and corporations and insurers and lawyers give money to further their business goals, or at least to ensure that those on the other side don't get ahead. They used to bundle contributions in the tens of thousands. Now, you've got to be raising or giving a million to be noticed.
And that's just what these folks spend directly on the elections. They also spend big on the lobbyists who ensure that the interests of big money are fully rewarded in legislative and executive actions.
It is a corrupt arms race, with no end in sight and no one willing to take steps to end it.
You can blame the Supreme Court for opening the door to "independent" expenditures that really aren't. Need I add that no recent members of the court have ever run for office?
You can blame the politicians who spend more time raising money, with few or no limits on who they'll take it from, without thinking for a moment about what will be expected of them, for whom November is the only relevant object.
Some years ago, when Republicans were consistently outraising Democrats, I asked a leader of my party why we were spending so much time competing in a losing battle that was, in more ways than I can detail in one column, costing us our collective soul. His answer was clear: Unilateral disarmament is a fool's answer.
Much like childrearing, the only way the system will ever change is if we stop rewarding bad behavior.
Oh, yes, every once in a while someone gets caught skirting the rules, not being quite clever enough in buying influence. A few years ago, that person was super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who was convicted for not crossing the t's and dotting the i's in his multimillion-dollar relationships with Indian tribes. Abramoff, after serving four years, is now preaching reform.
But the most interesting thing he told an audience this week in Rancho Mirage, Calif., is not what he did wrong, but that "99.9 percent of what I did was legal, but so much of it was reprehensible." And with the amount of money being spent on campaigns only going up, it's only getting worse. TMM: Too much money.
Susan Estrich is a best-selling author whose writings have appeared in newspapers such as The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Washington Post, and she has been a commentator on countless TV news programs. Read more reports from Susan Estrich — Click Here Now.