One Presidency, $100m starting price
Writing about web page http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/03/10/AR2006031002425.html
You wouldn't know it, but the 2008 US Presidential Race has already begun. True, it didn't have the same fanfare as the start of the F1 season, but at least it's set to be a 2005-style season with a wide open field, rather than a 2000-2004-style dead cert. Oh, and uncharismatic Europeans need not even apply. Sorry Arnie.
But is the race really a wide open field? Or are some of the competitors actually on a bit of a downward slope with the wind behind them?
The 2008 election will be one of the more interesting ones in the past twenty years. Firstly, there's no incumbent, and no wannabe-incumbent. Dick 'Shooter' Cheney is well out of the race – a more implausible candidate for Prez than Leo McGarry in the West Wing was for VP.
Dick Morris, Clinton's campaign strategist has already indicated (in a money-spinning book) that he thinks we'll see Clinton vs Condi, although Ms Rice has indicated she has no intention of running, probably because her domestic policy expertise is second only to Daffy Duck.
And Clinton herself is no certainty either – Southern America despises her for various reasons, almost all to do with her husband, making wins in California and Florida less likely – and Liberal America isn't enough to get her to the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue.
But Clinton has one thing on her side which makes her candidacy far more likely: money.
Essentially, her campaign to get back into the Senate this year is more of a front for a national campaign next year. Her fundraising capability is second-to-none and she has many influential friends – not all of them Democrat. In the Senate she's backed a number of bills which have been proposed by Republicans, and she's positioned herself as a pragmatist rather than ideologically attached to everything her party dictates.
And now the Chairman of the Federal Election Commission has told candidates to fill their wallets: they'll need $100m just to get through the primaries. That's $100m simply to persuade their own supporters to vote for them.
The Republicans aren't too worried by this figure – they have a number of very rich supporters who Bush has gently caressed over the past six years with policies designed to keep them pretty happy. Senator John McCain would appear to be a frontrunner for the Republicans – considered to be more moderate than Bush, he and Clinton have co-operated on a number of policies while on Capitol Hill. And quietly, he and other potential candidates have been getting supporters on side, particularly those who demonstrated their fundraising abilities for Bush in 2004.
But what does this mean for American Democracy? It's easy to say that money can buy you power, but we need to remember that the Presidential candidates themselves aren't necessarily rich (although it helps). They just have rich friends.
One real criticism of the process is the way that such inflated prices for running enforce the two-party system in the US. A third party is almost certainly out of the running immediately, and an independent candidate would have to be someone with access to Bill Gates in order to stand a chance at gaining even a single state.
The two-party system hasn't done America many favours over the past decades, just as it hasn't been very beneficial to the UK. It encourages disputes to be based on historical arguments that the parties have always been divided on, rather than contemporary issues. It also stereotypes Republicans and Democrats alike. We know that Democrats like big government and high taxes, and that Republicans like the opposite. But this is a caricature of reality: George Bush has actually proven himself to be a 'big-government' guy, but because he's a Republican, no-one seems to mind.
The money issue also leads to charges of corruption. The system whereby the state funds election campaigns was brought in after Watergate to seperate big-business from high-politics. But this system is optional: getting government money places restrictions on how much candidates can spend, and in 2008 there's no sign that candidates will want to hold back.
The ever-present danger is that certain interests will gain more influence than others, and which interests gain influence depends on who is elected. Hollywood and Liberal New Yorkers are highly likely to support the Democrats, but the 2004 election proved that big-business is also likely to support the Democrats too. The Republicans' advantage comes from rich individuals, often tied to the oil industry, or simply friends of the candidate.
What's clear is that the 2008 election will see ridiculous sums of money being spent on a campaign where the two parties try as hard as possible to be seen as different, when sometimes they've got a fair amount in common. But what's less obvious is where the money's going to come from, and what strings will be attached to the winner.