There’s one key that always fits Washington’s locks: a big campaign check. President Obama boasts about the many small donors who propelled him to office, but it’s the biggest givers who find the White House doors smoothly swinging open. Mitt Romney has tried to appeal to those in the middle class, but they’re not invited to the retreats with those who give him $50,000.
And, despite decades of money abuses and scandal, neither presidential candidate has shown any interest in reforming the system.
As Mike McIntire and Michael Luo reported in The Times on Sunday, big donors to Mr. Obama and the Democratic Party are far more likely to be welcomed at the White House than those who gave smaller gifts. Two-thirds of the president’s biggest fund-raisers in 2008 visited the White House at least once, as did three-fourths of those who gave $100,000 or more.
Reinforcing the appearance that money is being traded for access, many donors made their contributions in close proximity to their visits. Joe Kiani, the chairman and chief executive of the Masimo Corporation, a medical device company, gave the maximum of $35,800 to the Obama Victory Fund, which benefits the president’s campaign and the Democratic Party, just as he was attending a series of meetings with White House officials. At the time, his industry was lobbying to repeal a tax on medical devices.
The administration, of course, says there is no relationship between donations and access and notes that thousands of nondonors regularly visit the White House. But a more realistic appraisal of events was given by Patrick Kennedy, the former representative from Rhode Island, who also gave the maximum amount while pressing the administration to support his nonprofit medical venture. That’s “how this business works,” Mr. Kennedy, who had several visits to the White House, told The Times. “If you want to call it ‘quid pro quo,’ fine,” he added.
Mr. Romney hasn’t even waited to be elected to begin selling access.
One campaign e-mail message promises those who give $50,000 to the Romney Victory committee an invitation to meet with Mr. Romney in June, special access to the Republican National Convention in August and preferred status at a “presidential inaugural retreat” after the election, which seems cynical as well as premature.
Of course, if that’s too expensive for your budget, $10,000 will get a photo with Mr. Romney at an Atlanta fund-raiser in June.
These practices are depressingly familiar. Many of President George W. Bush’s biggest “rangers” and “pioneers” won ambassadorships or business favors, and President Clinton’s sale of White House sleepovers forever besmirched the reputation of the Lincoln Bedroom. But this year, as each campaign races toward an outrageous fund-raising goal of as much as $1 billion each, the need to end the pay-to-play auction is greater than ever.
The candidate who truly wants to impress voters would put an end to special-access retreats for big donors and would promise not to check a donation list when granting White House access. Mr. Obama, in particular, promised in 2008 to fix a “broken” public financing system that allows oversize donations. He opted out of the system, and the country is still waiting for that promise to be fulfilled.