Like almost everyone else in America, I have been inundated with invitations from President Obama, his wife, and his campaign officials to join the president for dinner or lunch. Just to sweeten the pot for those of us not so enamored of the president, some of the invitations promise that one celebrity or another will join the meal, sometimes even the vice president.
The cost to me is piddling — usually somewhere between $3 and maybe $12, or whatever I can afford. But as a fundraising gimmick, it must be working. The invitations keep coming, and challenger Mitt Romney has jumped on the eat-with-me bandwagon. I suspect millions have been raised by both campaigns with these simple lotteries.
As a former fundraiser (that is the primary task of law school deans these days), I admire the method. When roughly half the population is within your pool of prospects, small donations can add up to a lot of cash. You also achieve one of Fundraising 101’s central objectives — you get people to contribute (invest) just a little, meaning there is a much-improved prospect they will contribute larger amounts next time you ask.
As a citizen, however, I have been uneasy about this incentives-based approach to political fundraising. Something about it just doesn’t seem right. Then, today, it came to me. I got an invitation to have “some grub with POTUS.” “[Me], President Obama, a table, chairs, and some grub.” Even if all the chairs are occupied, this is, may I say, grubby. It is beneath the president of the United States, or anyone who aspires to the office.
This is like getting a free toaster for opening a new bank account, or a cheap jacket with my favorite team’s logo for subscribing to Sports Illustrated. Why should we all rise when a band plays “Hail to the Chief” upon the arrival of a president who auctioned off cheap prizes to get elected? Why would we address him as “Mr. President”? Won’t Barack, George, Bill, or even Mitt serve just as well? How can I have grub with a guy I’m supposed to address as “Mr. President”? And if this is all about raising the money necessary to elect our next president, why would I want to have lunch or dinner with Sarah Jessica Parker or George Clooney? Why not with someone who actually knows something about the challenges the next president will face.
I know, presidents are just people. Bill Clinton left us with no doubt on that question. But there is a reason we give them a mansion to live in and an enormous airplane to fly around in. There is a reason Democrats and Republicans alike stand up and applaud the president when he enters the House chamber to deliver the State of the Union address. There is a reason we shut down traffic and inconvenience tens of thousands of people every time the president visits an American city. The president is not only the most powerful person in the world, but also a symbol of a great nation — “a shining city upon a hill,” as Ronald Reagan famously said.
There is also the fact that these lunch lotteries amount to little more than buying access to the president and his challenger. Of course it’s only a chance for access, and a slim one at that, but the reality is that folks who do not “do what they can” for the campaigns do not have that chance. It’s just the poor man’s version of buying an opportunity to sleep in the Lincoln Bedroom.
No doubt political consultants have told both Obama and Romney that they need to connect with ordinary Americans. I’m sure that is true. But I’m not sure the best way to do it is for the candidate to appear ordinary. Ordinary is not what we need in the oval office.
Folks have grub with other folks at backyard barbecues. Folks do not have grub with the president of United States.
Jim Huffman is the dean emeritus of Lewis & Clark Law School, the co-founder of Northwest Free Press and a member of the Hoover Institution’s De Nault Task Force on Property Rights, Freedom and Prosperity.