West Wing: Big Business for President

By Gabor Steingart

The American presidential candidates are so busy drumming up campaign contributions and grabbing at opportunities to fly around on corporate jets that they have little time left for the people. Fundraising costs run into the millions, which helps explain why half the candidates in the race are already broke.

I recently received an e-mail from a woman named Michelle. Clearly she's no dummy, because the main thing she was looking for was my money. She was also a thoroughly modern woman who had no qualms about getting right to the point. "Hey," she wrote, "I won't write often." But this first letter, she added, was absolutely necessary.

She informed me that my helping her and her husband achieve their fundraising goal would "be an unmistakable sign that people can take back the process." All I had to do to be part of this undertaking was to send a small donation. The effort would be worth it, she wrote, if, as she and her husband had discovered, "we left the political process better off than how we found it -- not just for our family, but for the country and for folks around the world." The letter ended on a polite, appreciative note: "Thank you, Michelle."

Michelle is the wife of Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama. Because the American election system provides for only meager funding of election campaigns, the senator from Illinois has sent his wife out with the collection jar. Anyone who plans to capture the most powerful elected office in the United States clearly has some soliciting to do first.

Groveling to Get Big

The task of drumming up contributions from potential small donors is probably the least of the candidates' concerns. Big Business is a different story. Soliciting campaign contributions from the senior executives and owners of major corporations is a far more challenging task, one that requires candidates and their staffs to hone and apply the fine art of wooing and cajoling. The road to the White House leads through the living rooms of Hollywood executives, Wall Street financiers, defense industry lobbyists, oil magnates and corporate strategists of every stripe and color. Indeed, groveling is practically a prerequisite for hitting the big time: the country's highest office.

In this early phase of the election campaign the candidates and their helpers are constantly busy organizing barbeques, fireside chats and candlelight dinners to collect both the money and the political wish lists of the wealthy. These major donors, known as "fat cats" in the jargon of campaign managers, hold so much clout that they can sometimes make or break a candidate's political career. Indeed, the bank accounts of the country's economic kingpins contain the raw materials needed to turn politicians into presidents.

The ordinary people are second in line when it comes to being graced by the candidates' presence. But even that isn't always free anymore. Obama, who has raised the most money so far in this year's presidential race, is now charging $25 for tickets to his appearances. But he does offer student discounts.

Political fundraising is now the dominant campaign issue for the public. Who is raising the most money? Who is ahead of whom? What are the candidates' fundraising strategies? It's almost as if the Americans were gearing up to elect the chairman of a nonprofit organization, not a new president.

The American Porsche Is a Jet Stream

In addition to convincing CEOs to open their wallets, the candidates are also eager to score rides on their corporate jets. Private jets are as much a part of the American upper-class landscape as a sports car is for German business executives. The American Porsche is made by Learjet or Gulfstream.

Many of the presidential candidates are having themselves chauffeured through the air like tourists taking a taxi through the streets of New York. None of them is as fond of flying as John Edwards, the former North Carolina senator and now one of the Democratic presidential candidates. Fred Baron, a prominent attorney and friend, has provided Edwards with the use of his Hawker 800.

Former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, currently the leading Republican candidate, has shown a preference for a corporate jet owned by Elliott Asset Management, a company that belongs to hedge fund manager Paul E. Singer. Mitt Romney, currently running fourth among Republican candidates in the opinion polls, owes a debt of gratitude to eBay and Oracle for their generosity in offering him the use of their corporate jets. "The expansion of our pool of available aircraft is a key factor in keeping our campaign costs down," Romney wrote in an e-mail to potential supporters.

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