There was a time when running for president was actually a money-losing venture.
In fact, over the last 30 or so years, most presidential candidates (including some who actually won) ended up with tremendous debts after the campaign. Being in the red during and after a campaign was so common that paying off a former opponent’s campaign debt was seen as a benevolent form of political stunting. (Thanks, Obama!) But all of that has changed since Citizens United in 2010. Thanks to super PACs and enforcement mechanisms flimsier than tissue paper, running for president can now become a ridiculous money grab if you’re willing to put in the time.
So can we please start to differentiate between those people running for president and those out to get a quick buck and some inflated speaking fees? And we can start with one of the most egregious perpetrators of this new political fraud: Ben Carson.
Very quietly, about two weeks ago, Carson actually suspended his campaign for president. I know that most people probably didn’t notice because they were reeling from a week of Carson lecturing on how to survive a volcano, high-fiving the Confederate flag and dropping dimes on wealthy Popeye’s chicken cashiers, but this did actually occur. There is some nuance to this; essentially, Carson just dropped a new book, A More Perfect Union: What We the People Can Do to Reclaim Our Constitutional Liberties, and will go on tour to promote it. To avoid violating campaign-finance rules, Carson, ABC initially reported, was suspending his campaign activities until the next televised debate on CNBC Oct. 28.
Whether this amounts to his stopping his campaign entirely (unlikely) or scaling back campaign activities to promote a book (much more likely), it speaks to the same problem: How seriously can you take a candidate for president of the United States who takes time out of a campaign to hawk books? How could any job, or responsibility, outside of your family and health be important enough for you to scale back your efforts to become leader of the free world? Either you don’t know what this job really entails or you’re not serious about the job, and my guess is the latter.
There have always been long shot candidates running for the presidency within the two major parties, but they were at least trying to get the job—people like Dennis Kucinich, Rick Santorum, Martin O’Malley and Tom Tancredo in recent years, and even folks like Carol Moseley Braun back in ’96. You know how you can tell real candidates from those just out to make a buck and a name for themselves? They actually do campaign activities. If you’re a real candidate, you show up in primary states, argue to get into debates, study up on the issues, improve from debate to debate, explain a long-term campaign strategy, and spend your money on staff and organizers. Essentially, you act as if you actually want the job.
The other candidates we’re seeing in recent years, like Carson, Newt Gingrich, Herman Cain and Carly Fiorina, are cashing in on loopholes in our threadbare campaign-finance system and making only symbolic efforts to actually run organized campaigns. How is this possible? Thanks to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling in 2010, money is now “free speech.” Consequently, while a presidential-primary campaign has fundraising limits ($2,700), a super PAC supporting a candidate can raise unlimited amounts of money so long as the political action committee doesn’t “coordinate” with the federal campaign. Considering that candidates step down from super PACs to run campaigns, and hire staffers from super PACs to run their campaigns, coordination is definitely happening.
So, what does this campaign-for-cash game look like? The year 2012 gave us a clear glimpse.
Republican 2012 primary candidate Cain, whose tax plan was inspired by a college-dorm pizza deal, was never really running for president. But because of a fun personality and wacky debate quotes, he managed to raise almost $16 million and spend all of it. Not on campaign staff, or organizers in Iowa, but mostly on travel and “expenses.” He left the race having spent all $16 million and owing money only to “himself,” which he never has to pay back. He also got a radio show, a best-selling book and increased speaking fees post-election.
Then there’s Gingrich, who raised $23 million in his campaign, only to win one primary state. In the meantime, he managed to go to the all-important Hawaiian primary just in time for his wedding anniversary. Despite running five super PACs, he blew all of his $23 million and hasn’t paid back over $4 million in debts. However, he still got a TV gig on CNN, increased speaking fees and a higher profile through which to promote his policies. Considering that Carson has raised over $21 million in the 2015 cycle but still hasn’t even given up paid speaking engagements, it’s not hard to imagine that he’ll find a way to jump out of this race and cash out by February of 2016.
You can call Ben Carson a lot of things: a brilliant surgeon, a questionable surgeon, a man of faith or a story of inspiration. But you cannot in good conscience call someone who barely visits early-primary states, spends half his money on fundraising (as opposed to staff and organizers), and curtails his campaign to give paid speeches and sell books a serious presidential contender. This is not about ideology or strategy or even ability. It’s about cash, and who’s in this campaign to run the country and who’s in this campaign to run up a tab on donor dollars. It’s pretty clear which one Carson is, but some people may not figure it out until he’s already cashed out and gone.
Jason Johnson, political editor at The Root, is a professor of political science at Morgan State’s School of Global Journalism and Communication and is a frequent guest on MSNBC, CNN, Al-Jazeera International, Fox Business News and SiriusXM Satellite Radio. Follow him on Twitter.