The Politician and the Gift

January 12, 2016
posted by Bob Bauer

A number of political candidates over the years have recounted the experience of raising too much money, too much of the time, for their campaigns.  They find it awkward and embarrassing to ask for the money, and the pace and intensity of this fundraising consume too much time that could be diverted to more productive uses. They understand the suspicions it raises in those looking on from the outside. Congressman Steve Israel is the most recent to write about experience, and he is a respected elected official whose contribution to this narrative will not be ignored.

Israel is not talking about fundraising events to which tickets are sold, or about appeals on line or in the mail. It is about the person asked for money face to face, or ear to ear: the direct “ask”, which will be answered positively, negatively, or somewhere in between.  It is a personal appeal, but one that is managed and strained: the candidate crammed in the cubicle with a phone, staff at his side, reading off notecards with bits of data about the fundraising target on the other end of the line.

Reform theorists worry about the risk in this contact of trading policy for money, or about the dangers of intense association over time with people who have lots of money.  On the conscious level, the politician may be tempted to offer something for cash; on the subconscious level, he simply may come to prefer the company of rich people and identify with their policy objectives and interests.

But it can be more complicated than that.  Gift theorists—not to be confused with reform theorists—tell us that the psychology of giving and receiving is never simple. William Ian Miller has written that “central to the notion of the gift is the way in which reciprocity is effected and enforced,” and this is tricky business, because gift giving and receiving have the potential to “threaten, humiliate, annoy, manipulate, and vex.” William Ian Miller, Humiliation (1993), 21, 23.

There is no reason to believe that it is any different for the politician who is asking for a campaign contribution, or for the prospective donor being asked for it.  Picture the candidate who is trying to go about this work the right way: to ask for the appropriate level of contribution (neither too much nor too little), and to establish the right tone (neither tactlessly businesslike nor presumptuously familiar).  It can be an awkward conversation, and it can inspire discomfort on both ends of the call.  And when it is over, there is a question of what sort of relationship has been established.

And this is what is also at issue in cases like McDonnell.   No judgment on the merits of this particular case, or on the actions of the particular former official, is necessary (nor expressed here) to appreciate the significance of the issue it addresses.  The hypothetical politician trying to “do the right thing” knows that the gift asked for and given puts him under some obligation, creates some expectation—of at least recognition.  A routine “thank you” letter won’t usually do the trick.  An apparent piece of public policy is illegal overpayment.  This is why a tour of the office might be scheduled, or an invitation to an official event might be issued, or something is arranged to show that the support previously given was not taken for granted.

Once this becomes perilous legal territory, the candidate can be unsure of which kind of recognition other than the pro forma tip of the hat is acceptable in responding to the gift given.  She might refuse much in the way of recognition altogether: the written “thank you” to one and all– the large and small givers, the devoted and more causal supporters–may be all she will offer.  Or, trying to do more, she could find that there is little difference, in legal risk, between various gestures of appreciation and selling policy or official acts.  This does not seem to make much sense.

Leave a Reply