ALL THIS CASH – AND ONE OF THEM WILL LOSE!

Half a billion dollars.

That’s what the Republican and Democratic nominees each will likely spend on the 2008 presidential election.

Half a billion dollars.

This figure came to light with the recent news that presidential wannabes Hillary Rodham Clinton and Mitt Romney – and soon, likely, John McCain – already were rejecting public financing in favor of private fund-raising. In other words, keep your money, America, we’ll raise our own.

Half a billion dollars?

Ever since Watergate shook the nation in the 1970s, we’ve had a system in which major candidates can get the same amount of public money to run for president as long as they promise not to raise or use private contributions. This money – around $122 million a candidate – is raised by citizens checking a box on their tax returns designating $3 to the election fund.

Now, $122 million should be enough to run a campaign. In fact, it seems downright generous of us taxpayers. And if every candidate has the same ceiling, it’s at least a level playing field. Like we used to do in high school. Remember? If you ran for class president, you were entitled to one poster and one flyer. Same as everyone else. You couldn’t outdo your rivals by spending Mom and Dad’s money and papering the school with paraphernalia.

One poster. One flyer.

The rest was up to you. Money for nothing? No way!

Now, we shouldn’t be surprised that high school makes more sense than the federal government. Most things make more sense than the federal government.

But this cost-of-election explosion has such obvious ramifications, you wonder why people aren’t screaming.

Let’s face it: If it takes $500 million to run for president, you can forget the little guy. You can forget a 2008 “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington.”

What $500 million means is that only the richest, most connected and most pliable people will have a chance at ever leading this nation. Notice I didn’t use the words “intelligent,””moral” or “inspirational.” Those things are nice. But they don’t get you $500 million.

What gets you $500 million is the perception that you will be favorable, if elected, to the people who gave it to you. Those lucky folks capable of raising such money – lobbyists, for example, who can bundle contributions into seven-figure donations – aren’t doing it for fun. They’re doing it to protect their interests. And they will expect, if the candidate wins, to get their quid pro quo.

In essence, at these prices, a president is bought and paid for before he or she ever puts a hand on the Bible. The high cost of free speech

What I don’t understand is why, if we raise public money for presidential elections, we don’t insist that all candidates use it.

Make everyone spend the same on ads and campaigning. Let no one have a penny more than the other guy. Then it’s up to the candidate to get out there, to speak, to state a position, to debate – instead of depending on slickly crafted commercials to shape his or her image.

But this is not how it works. Candidates such as Clinton will be able to dwarf the opposition with radio and TV ads, billboards, travel – giving them a huge advantage.

Yet the most common argument for keeping this unfair system in place?

Free speech.

That’s right. People argue that they ought to be allowed to give their money wherever they want, to bundle it however they can, because to deny this is to deny free speech.

I don’t know. An individual can give $4,200 to a presidential candidate next year (for the primaries and the general election). That’s not exactly free speech. In fact, $4,200 represents about 10% of the median annual income for an American family.

Poor people can’t give that much. Middle class can’t. Rich people can. So tell me again how this is about free speech and not ensuring special interests get their candidates in.

Half a billion dollars. A billion for two parties. You look at the current candidates. You look at our current leader. And you have to wonder if presidential campaigns aren’t the single biggest blowing of money in the world.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).

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