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Money in politics at root of inability to solve problems
To get past the vitriol and reform health care or anything else, let's limit campaign spending.

"Work hard and dream big" was the message President Obama delivered to the nation's schoolchildren last week. That's a pretty good message for young Americans, all Americans, really.

However, the conservative talk show pundits, who increasingly view themselves as the arbiters of all things American, were having none of it. It is a commentary on the sorry state of our democracy that this small group could generate such vitriol that superintendents across the country were running for cover – even in Maine.

I woke on Labor Day morning to a front page Kennebec Journal story with the headline, "Obama speech will not be shown," reporting on the response of Gardiner-based School Administrative District 11 to this "crisis."

The scary part is that this right-wing fringe appears to have co-opted one of the two major political parties. Moderate Republicans have largely been driven from the party.

Thank God for Maine Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, both of whom continue to buck the flow of their party. Snowe and Collins pay a big price for holding to their moderate values and sometimes working with Democratic colleagues on solutions to some of our nation's problems – how quaint a concept to put the problems of the nation ahead of party.

Paul Krugman, economics columnist for The New York Times and an unbridled political liberal, even had a column last week titled "Missing Richard Nixon." Krugman notes that many of the retrospectives on Ted Kennedy's life mentioned Kennedy's regret at not having accepted Nixon's offer of a bipartisan health care deal.

We were living in D.C. at the time, and I well remember those circumstances. It did seem that the country was finally going to get universal coverage. As several commentators have noted, Nixon's plan then was very close to what Democrats are proposing now.

At the time, Kennedy wanted more, and that opportunity passed. Here we are almost 40 years later, faced with an unsustainable health care system that discriminates harshly against those without care, and we are not able to muster bipartisan support for a solution.

We may still hope that Snowe uses her considerable skill and unique position as the last Republican moderate standing to help craft a better bill, even if not truly bipartisan.

As I survey the political landscape in this country, it is difficult not to be discouraged. We have several pressing national problems – health care, the deficit, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and a woeful public education system, to name a few. Where will we muster up the political will to address these responsibly?

Political gerrymandering and the corrupting influence of big money have given us extreme polarization of the political parties and politicians who, for all their good intentions, must spend most of their waking hours fundraising.

In addition, new forms of media have made it relatively easy for small, single-issue groups to mobilize against most anything – even a presidential back-to-school speech.

Krugman captures the essence of this situation in his final comment: "Actually turning around this country is going to take years of siege warfare against deeply entrenched interests defending a deeply dysfunctional political system."

"Siege warfare" is not my idea of how we should move forward in the 21st century. There must be a better way. One key to a brighter future must involve moderating the extraordinary role of money in our political system.

In Maine, we have a promising approach in our Clean Election Fund that provides public financing for state elections. This approach has worked particularly well in elections for the state Legislature, although less well in the big-money race for governor, where candidates see advantage in opting out so they can raise more unrestricted money.

On a national scale, it is time to consider a constitutional amendment to put specific limits on how much money can be spent in races for national office.

Apparently an amendment is the only way real limits can be placed on candidate fundraising.

Former Sens. Bill Bradley and David Boren are both articulate advocates of this approach. Though the process is cumbersome, requiring approval by two- thirds of the states, it is a method that was used to bring the vote to 18-year-olds in the '70s.

Now is the time to start this process. We have a president who can provide leadership. We have many problems that need solving.

Removing money from the system is an important first step in winning our country back.