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Iowa: The Meaningless Sideshow Begins

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ron paul mitt romney rick santorum
Ron Paul, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images; Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images; Scott Olson/Getty Images

The 2012 presidential race officially begins today with the caucuses in Iowa, and we all know what that means …

Nothing.

The race for the White House is normally an event suffused with drama, sucking eyeballs to the page all over the globe. Just as even the non-British were at least temporarily engaged by last year’s royal wedding, people all over the world are normally fascinated by the presidential race: both dramas arouse the popular imagination as real-life versions of universal children’s fairy tales.

Instead of a tale about which maiden gets to marry the handsome prince, the campaign is an epic story, complete with a gleaming white castle at the end, about the battle to succeed to the king’s throne. Since the presidency is the most powerful office in the world, the tale has appeal for people all over the planet, from jungles to Siberian villages.

It takes an awful lot to rob the presidential race of this elemental appeal. But this year’s race has lost that buzz. In fact, this 2012 race may be the most meaningless national election campaign we’ve ever had. If the presidential race normally captivates the public as a dramatic and angry ideological battle pitting one impassioned half of society against the other, this year’s race feels like something else entirely.

In the wake of the Tea Party, the Occupy movement, and a dozen or more episodes of real rebellion on the streets, in the legislatures of cities and towns, and in state and federal courthouses, this presidential race now feels like a banal bureaucratic sideshow to the real event – the real event being a looming confrontation between huge masses of disaffected citizens on both sides of the aisle, and a corrupt and increasingly ideologically bankrupt political establishment, represented in large part by the two parties dominating this race.

Let’s put it this way. What feels more like a real news story – Newt Gingrich calling Mitt Romney a liar for the ten millionth time, or this sizzling item that just hit the wires by way of the Montana Supreme Court:

HELENA — The Montana Supreme Court restored the state's century-old ban on direct spending by corporations on political candidates or committees in a ruling Friday that interest groups say bucks a high-profile U.S. Supreme Court decision granting political speech rights to corporations…

A group seeking to undo the Citizens United decision lauded the Montana high court, with its co-founder saying it was a "huge victory for democracy."

"With this ruling, the Montana Supreme Court now sets up the first test case for the U.S. Supreme Court to revisit its Citizens United decision, a decision which poses a direct and serious threat to our democracy," John Bonifaz, of Free Speech For People, said in a statement.

Now that is real politics -- real protest, real change. Exactly the opposite of the limp and sterile charade in Iowa. This caucus, let’s face it, marks the beginning of a long, rigidly-controlled, carefully choreographed process that is really designed to do two things: weed out dangerous minority opinions, and award power to the candidate who least offends the public while he goes about his primary job of energetically representing establishment interests.

If that sounds like a glib take on a free election system that allows the public to choose whichever candidate it likes best without any censorship or overt state interference, so be it. But the ugly reality, as Dylan Ratigan continually points out, is that the candidate who raises the most money wins an astonishing 94% of the time in America.

That damning statistic just confirms what everyone who spends any time on the campaign trail knows, which is that the presidential race is not at all about ideas, but entirely about raising money.

The auctioned election process is designed to reduce the field to two candidates who will each receive hundreds of millions of dollars apiece from the same pool of donors. Just take a look at the lists of top donors for Obama and McCain from the last election in 2008.

Obama’s top 20 list included:

 

McCain’s list, meanwhile, included (drum roll please): 

 

Obama’s list included all the major banks and bailout recipients, plus a smattering of high-dollar defense lawyers from firms like WilmerHale and Skadden Arps who make their money representing those same banks. McCain’s list included exactly the same banks and a similar list of law firms, the minor difference being that it was Gibson Dunn instead of WilmerHale, etc.

The numbers show remarkable consistency, as Chase, Morgan Stanley, and Citigroup all gave roughly twice or just over twice as much to Obama as they did to McCain, almost perfectly matching the overall donations profile for both candidates: overall, Obama raised just over twice as much ($730 million) as McCain did ($333 million).

Those numbers tell us that both parties rely upon the same core of major donors among the top law firms, the Wall Street companies, and business leaders – basically, the 1%. Those one-percenters always give generously to both parties and both presidential candidates, although they sometimes will hedge their bets significantly when they think one side or the other has a lopsided chance at victory. That’s clearly what happened in 2008, when Wall Street correctly called Obama as a 2-1 (or maybe a 7-3) favorite to beat McCain.

The 1% donors are remarkably tolerant. They’ll give to just about anyone who polls well, provided they fall within certain parameters. What they won’t do is give to anyone who is even a remote threat to make significant structural changes, i.e. a Dennis Kucinich, an Elizabeth Warren, or a Ron Paul (hell will freeze over before Wall Street gives heavily to a candidate in favor of abolishing their piggy bank, the Fed). So basically what that means is that voters are free to choose anyone they want, provided it isn’t Dennis Kucinich, or Ron Paul, or some other such unacceptable personage.

If the voters insist on supporting such a person in defiance of these donors – this might even happen tonight, with a Paul win in Iowa – what you inevitably end up seeing is a monstrous amount of money quickly dumped into the cause of derailing that candidate. This takes overt forms, like giving heavily to his primary opponents, and more covert forms, like manufacturing opinions through donor-subsidized think tanks and the heavy use of lapdog media figures to push establishment complaints.

And what ends up happening there is that the candidate with the big stack of donor money always somehow manages to survive the inevitable scandals and tawdry revelations, while the one who’s depending on checks from grandma and $25 internet donations from college students always winds up mysteriously wiped out.

Thus the guy like George W. Bush, who dodged the draft and lied about his National Guard Service, steams to re-election, while a guy like Howard Dean – really not any kind of real threat to the status quo, whose major crimes were being insufficiently pro-war and finding an alternative source of campaign funding on the net – magically falls off the map and is made a caricature after one loony scream before Iowa.

The reason 2012 feels so empty now is that voters on both sides of the aisle are not just tired of this state of affairs, they are disgusted by it. They want a chance to choose their own leaders and they want full control over policy, not just a partial say. There are a few challenges to this state of affairs within the electoral process – as much as I disagree with Paul about many things, I do think his campaign is a real outlet for these complaints – but everyone knows that in the end, once the primaries are finished, we’re going to be left with one 1%-approved stooge taking on another.

Most likely, it’ll be Mitt Romney versus Barack Obama, meaning the voters’ choices in the midst of a massive global economic crisis brought on in large part by corruption in the financial services industry will be a private equity parasite who has been a lifelong champion of the Gordon Gekko Greed-is-Good ethos (Romney), versus a paper progressive who in 2008 took, by himself, more money from Wall Street than any two previous presidential candidates, and in the four years since has showered Wall Street with bailouts while failing to push even one successful corruption prosecution (Obama).

There are obvious, even significant differences between Obama and someone like Mitt Romney, particularly on social issues, but no matter how Obama markets himself this time around, a choice between these two will not in any way represent a choice between “change” and the status quo. This is a choice between two different versions of the status quo, and everyone knows it.

The real fight against the status quo is coming in places like the Supreme Court of Montana, which with this recent ruling correctly identified the real battle lines in the upcoming political season by boldly rejecting the concept of unlimited corporate campaign spending.

It’s coming in places like the courthouse of federal Judge Jed Rakoff, who recently rejected a dirty settlement deal between the SEC and Citigroup. It’s on the streets in the OWS protests and even in the Tea Party, which in recent years unseated countless Republican party lifer-stooges over their support of the bailouts (like Utah Senator Robert Bennett, who was hounded at a party convention with chants of “TARP, TARP, TARP!”).

This widespread and growing movement against the twin corrupting influences of money on our politics and state patronage on big business is going on everywhere – on the streets, in these courthouses, in the homes of people refusing to move after foreclosure, even in the antitax movements and the campaigns against state pensions.

The only place we can be absolutely sure this battle will not be found is in any national presidential race between Barack Obama and someone like Mitt Romney.

The campaign is still a gigantic ritual and it will still be attended by all the usual pomp and spectacle, but it’s empty. In fact, because it’s really a contest between 1%-approved candidates, it’s worse than empty – it’s obnoxious.

It was always annoying when these two parties and the slavish media that follows their champions around for 18 months pretended that this was a colossal clash of opposites. But now, with the economy in the shape that it’s in thanks in large part to the people financing these elections, that pretense is more than annoying, it’s offensive.

And I imagine that the more they try to play up the drama of these familiar-but-empty campaign rituals, the more irritating to the public it will all become. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if, before the season is out, the campaign itself will become a hated symbol of the 1% -- with the conventions and the networks’ broadcast tents outside the inevitable "free speech zones" attracting protests the same way the offices of Chase and Bank of America did this fall.  

Or maybe not, we’ll see. In any case, the dreary campaign to choose the next imperial administrator -- the One Percent-Off, let's call it -- starts tonight. It’s the same old ritual, but I just don’t think it’s going to fly the same way this time around.

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ABOUT THIS BLOG

Matt Taibbi

Matt Taibbi is a contributing editor for Rolling Stone. He’s the author of five books and a winner of the National Magazine Award for commentary. Please direct all media requests to taibbimedia@yahoo.com.

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