Richard Reeves

The First Primary: Money

LOS ANGELES -- It turns out that the first presidential primary will not be in New Hampshire after all. And it will not require or involve voters at all. The first primary is money.

The press went into a frenzy last week, 19 full months before the 2008 election, over how much money Democratic and Republican candidates for president had raised in the first three months of this year -- writing off some candidates before a single citizen of the republic had a chance to vote.

Well, who needs citizens and those tricky new voting machines anyway when you can count dollars rather than votes? Let's cut out the middlemen and -women and cut straight to the money chase.

Say, here's an idea: Eliminate caucuses and primaries and conventions and general elections as well. And save donors and taxpayers money, too. Let's bring all the candidates into a room (or a studio) and have them play each other in Monopoly. The candidate who gets all the little Monopoly bills becomes president.

The system would pay for itself, because advertisers would be more than happy to pay whatever it took to televise the games. I mean, these people are already paying to be part of the broadcast of ugly-people poker on ESPN. The candidates, after all, are better looking in general than the poker players.

It was bound to come to this, of course. American government, at home, is about distribution of national resources. Dollars, minted or Monopoly, are just symbolic representations of real resources such as oil or real estate. Abroad, America is about capturing new resources or resource agreements that make the rich, us, get richer -- and show the smarter of foreigners how it's done. Monopoly is perfect as a training and testing ground for our national leaders. Learning to get Iraq or Iraq's oil is about the same as figuring out how to get Park Place and the Boardwalk -- or get out of jail, free.

I am happy to read that The New York Times editorial page seems to be moving in the same direction as I am on this thing. They approvingly quote candidate Barack Obama as saying the dollar politics of our day is "obscene." The editorial then goes on: "The sheer volume of money ... is setting a new low with a ludicrously premature handicapping of the race based on the ability to raise cash."

The disapproval of Obama and The Times, however, has limits. The candidate has grabbed $25 million so far and will continue the hunt for every other $25 million blowing down the gold-paved streets of the United States. The newspaper, in its news sections, has devoted page after page to reporting and analyzing the money flow: Obama and Mitt Romney are up; Hillary Clinton is holding her own, and so are John Edwards and Rudy Giuliani. John McCain looks bad and, even on a clear day, you can barely see Joe Biden and Sam Brownback. Correspondent Adam Nagourney concludes that the dollar figures indicate the nation must be moving toward the Democrats.

All this proves a couple of things, I think. First, money may not bring happiness -- though most of us are open to trying out that one ourselves -- but it may bring public office. The real Monopoly players in politics -- say, former Wall Streeters Michael Bloomberg in New York and Jon Corzine of New Jersey -- can simply buy the offices they covet. Second, to the political press all numbers are created equal -- or is it unequal? The fund-raising frenzy being reported now is simply an extension of our obsession with poll numbers. It does not matter whether polls are right or whether money is a measure of political talent; the lovely fact is that no one can deny numbers -- they stand alone, and can be treated as facts and truths.

Votes, of course, are numbers, too. But it's too early to think about them. If the voters do not validate the numbers being celebrated right now, we will call the election an "Upset!" And we will strongly suggest that the voters don't pay enough attention or are fatally flawed in some inexplicable way.

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