Ballots for Dollars

Go ahead, spend lots of cash. You?ll still lose.

Yesterday, the National Association of Bilingual Educators concluded its 2001 annual national convention in Phoenix on a desperate note. According to a front-page story in the Arizona Republic, the 7,000 participants were beseeched to pony up millions of dollars to fight the forthcoming state-wide “English for the Children” campaigns in Colorado, Massachusetts, New York, and elsewhere. The resounding defeat, just four months earlier, of a plan for Spanish-almost-only instruction in the state hosting the NABE convention, heightened the urgency of the appeal.

In principle, such fundraising pleas should enjoy an excellent chance of success. I expect that America’s current multi-billion-dollar “bilingual education industry” covered the expenses of nearly all the attendees; registration fees, airfare, and five nights of hotel accommodations and incidentals must have pushed the total bill to more than $10 million.

Presumably an industry willing to spend an eight-digit sum on annual self-celebration also would be willing to shell out at least a comparable amount to defend its continued existence.

Whether such money will make much of a difference is quite another story. Our 1998 Prop. 227 initiative campaign in California was outspent some 25 to 1 in advertising, yet we managed to crush the No side by a 22-point margin. Our 2000 campaign for Prop. 203 in Arizona was also outspent nearly 10 to 1 in advertising, but we wound up pummeling the opposition by a margin of 26 points. Political advertising follows the same basic rules as consumer advertising, and maintaining Spanish-almost-only “bilingual education” in our public schools seems a perfect example of the dog-food that dogs just won’t eat.

Although, in recent years, perceptions have grown that money and paid political advertising dominate or even determine election results, actual evidence for this thesis is mixed. Many of the quiet advocates for the all-powerful role of money belong to that elite class of paid media consultants and political fundraisers whose personal income derives from a fixed percentage of the campaign money raised and spent. Candidates have been encouraged to transform themselves into empty fund-raising vessels, mindless pipelines that passively transmit cash between donor and consultant bank accounts.

Today, a “successful candidate” is not an individual who articulates important policy issues, nor someone who wins on Election Day, but someone who succeeds in vacuuming up the most cash for his consultant puppet-masters. Come again? When an Internet multimillionaire parted with nearly $30 million of his personal fortune just to achieve a 3 to 1 drubbing at the polls on his bid for school vouchers, he may have lost at the ballot box, but his handlers went home happy. Similarly, Al Checchi’s 1998 California gubernatorial campaign proved remarkably disastrous for the $40-million candidate but remarkably beneficial to his raft of profiteers, who earned millions in commissions for just a few months of very part-time work.

Rick Lazio raised no substantive issues during his recent Senate bid, but enough cash ? over $35 million ? to massively outspend his victorious opponent, Hillary Clinton; in the end, Hillary got a Senate seat, Lazio’s consultant got a mansion, while Lazio dug himself into debt. Such is the nature of modern political warfare. The world of dot-com stock pitchmen is honest by comparison.

Given these new political realities, I hope that the leaders of our bilingual-education industry follow the path trodden by the likes of Al Checchi and Rick Lazio. If so, they will drive themselves toward expensive and humiliating political oblivion. The poetic justice of seeing one corrupt and profiteering industry ruthlessly devoured by another just as corrupt and profiteering is heartening.

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