BIDLACK: Marco Rubio was right

Author: Hal Bidlack - March 6, 2018 - Updated: March 6, 2018

Hal Bidlack
Hal Bidlack

You have no idea how hard it was for me to write that headline.

In the wake of the horrific events in Parkland, Florida, Senator Marco Rubio appeared at a Town Hall event, and got pretty well slammed on the issue of guns. Now, first off, there is a certain irony that some in the GOP are praising Mr. Rubio for attending the event. But given that it was actually a meeting with his constituents, making the event part of his job, it’s hard to see what was so noble about just showing up, but I digress…

You may well have seen the clip on the news, as Mr. Rubio flounders around a bit talking about assault weapons. He made some entirely legitimate points, while making other that were more, let’s say, creative. But the moment that is getting lots of attention is when he was powerfully asked by a student from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School if he would pledge not to take any further donations from the NRA. In his reply, the Senator managed to come across as both equivocating and pandering, but ironically, blind-pig-and-truffle-style, he said something important and true about American politics in the modern era.

In appearing to explain why he would continue to accept NRA money, Mr. Rubio said, “People buy into my agenda, and I do support the Second Amendment.” He was understandably booed, but the point he was making was apt, and points to a deep misunderstanding that many in this country have about money in politics in general, and special interest group donations in particular.

In my own run for the US Congress in 2008, I nobly refused big tobacco company donations. But if truth be told, I wasn’t being especially noble, because the tobacco companies never tried to donate to my campaign. Why is that? Well, because if elected, I would work against their interests. I also did not get donations from Wall Street banks, which I argued should be better regulated, nor did I get money from Big Oil, for the same reasons.

Simply put, special interest groups do not donate money to candidates to “buy” them off. Really, it’s true. Rather, they donate money to candidates who already agree with them. And that is a critically important point – they don’t give money to buy influence, they give money to buy access.

The reason the NRA gives money to Marco Rubio is because they want to elect a person who already embraces the NRA’s agenda. If they were trying to buy candidates, they would donate heavily to Elizabeth Warren or Cory Booker. But they don’t, because they know they would be throwing away their money. Does the Sierra Club donate to Doug Lamborn? Not likely. Special interests give money to help elect people they already know will be their friend once in office.

And that’s because once their candidate is elected, they do expect to get what their money actually “buys,” which is access to the candidate and senior staff. The late Senator Paul Simon (of Illinois, not Garfunkel) once put it this way. He said (and I’m paraphrasing) “if I get home at 9 pm and I have twenty people whom I should call, and I have time to call ten of them. How do I decide whom to call? Well, if ten of the twenty were big donors, they get called first.”

That’s the core dirty business of political donations. You don’t buy the politician, but you do buy access to his or her ear. And, frankly, is it any different in the private sector? If you are a busy executive, and you have time to make one phone call, do you choose to return the call of your biggest customer or a random stranger?

Is this cynical? Yes, it is, and is a large part of why I favor publicly financed campaigns, with no private or corporate donations, but I don’t think that will happen any time soon. So, we are stuck with the system we have, until we get meaningful campaign finance reform.

And so, in this one small area, regarding donations, Marco Rubio was…gasp…correct. He will continue to accept NRA donations because he already agrees with their agenda. If the good people of Florida want a senator who will not lend the NRA a ready ear, they need to elect someone else. And, my fellow Coloradans, our own Senator Cory Gardner took $3.8 million from the NRA. Just say’n…

Hal Bidlack

Hal Bidlack

Hal Bidlack is a retired professor of political science and a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who taught more than 17 years at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.