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Spending within their means

By
October 19, 2007

If Americans really cared about the annual deficit or the $9 trillion national debt, they would choose Hillary Rodham Clinton or Ron Paul to be the next president. They’re among few candidates for the White House whose campaign spending is well within their means.

So much money is being thrown around in Iowa and New Hampshire, the traditional early battlegrounds in election politicking, our eyes glaze over when we see those ubiquitous charts showing how much the candidates say they’ve raised. They’re coming up on $400 million, long before most Americans have even begun to focus on the upcoming primaries or before those costly, obnoxious national TV ads have started to run. By the time the last vote is counted about a year from now, the presidential candidates are expected to have raised $1 billion, not counting federal matching funds.

That, of course, is why the fundraisers are the heart of the modern presidential campaign, even more than the message meisters. But a candidate’s spending habits in pursuit of the presidency could be a good indicator of what they’d be like minding our nation’s purse strings.

Yes, the guys are accusing Hillary Clinton of being another one of those tax-and-spend Dems, putting forth one expensive plan after another, for health care or savings promotion or education. But she at least isn’t spending more than what she is raising in her bid to be the first woman president. She has raised more money than any other candidate, Republican or Democrat. She has raised $60 million and still has $35 million. In the last three months, she spent $21.1 million but she took in $21.9 million.

Ron Paul, the iconoclastic Texas Republican who has developed a fanatical Web following, raised $5.2 million in the last three months out of the $8.2 million he has raised overall. But he still has $5.4 million in the bank and no debt. Likewise, Democrat Dennis Kucinich, former mayor of Cleveland, raised $1 million in the last quarter and spent $900,000.

But profligacy is neither solely a Republican nor a Democratic vice. Democrats Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware, Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut and Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico all spent more in the last three months than they raised during that period. Republicans Rudy Giuliani, former New York City mayor, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, Arizona Sen. John McCain and Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas also all spent more than they took in during that period.

Romney, the ex-businessman who insists he’s the sharpest tool in the drawer when it comes to making money, spent $21 million in the last quarter while taking in only $9.5 million. so he took $8.5 million out of his own pocket to help defray expenses. President Bush, doesn’t have enough to pay for the war in Iraq out of current tax receipts so he doesn’t put it in his budget and dips into Social Security trust funds.

Giuliani, who insists his stalwart performance when terror rained from the skies on 9/11 makes him the best person to lead the country, spent $13 million in the last quarter but took in only $9.9 million. Millionaire trial lawyer John Edwards has struggled to raise money but has about $8 million in his bank account, putting him a distant third behind Clinton and Obama. Obama spent $21.5 million in the third quarter, taking in slightly less than that. But he has $32 million on hand, only about $3 million less cash than Clinton has in her coffers.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who was last year’s favorite to win the GOP nomination, is having serious money troubles. He raised $5 million in the last quarter but spent $5.4 million. He has only $1.6 million on hand. But he also has $1.7 million in debts.

Former Tennessee senator and actor Fred Thompson, the Johnny-come-lately to the race, just became an official candidate last month but was fundraising long before that. So far he has raised $12.8 million but despite being the new wunderkind on the block he has only $7.1 million in the bank.

This is going to be the most expensive election in world history, and the candidates should be held responsible not just for how much money they raise but how wisely they spend it and whether they spend more than they take in. Presidents are like kids in candy stores — there’s so much they want to do, so much they want to spend to burnish their legacy, that it becomes just too easy to kick the can down the road and say tomorrow’s taxpayers will pick up the tab.

The candidates, getting desperate now because the GOP and Democratic nominees could be decided by mid-February, are supposed to report on their finances every three months. Sadly, we probably won’t really know how well or poorly they’ve done until months or even years after the November 2008 election, when the Federal Election Commission puts out final tallies. Sometimes the FEC finds candidates guilty of all kinds of shenanigans long after election results are in.

There are more issues in selecting a president than how a candidate manages his/her finances, of course. But it ought to be one of those concerns we keep tucked in the back of our minds. At least Hillary Clinton and Ron Paul seem to think so.

(Scripps Howard columnist Ann McFeatters has covered the White House and national politics since 1986. E-mail amcfeatters(at)nationalpress.com.)