Campaign Finance Restrictions Irrelevant to Oprah

Money talks, the saying goes. But not as much as Oprah.

Oprah Winfrey has decided to contribute to Barack Obama's presidential campaign- not by writing a check, but by donating every aspect of her cult of personality to his cause.

She officially endorsed him all the way back in May, but now she's "in discussions with his advisers about playing a broader role in the campaign -- possibly as a surrogate on the stump or an outspoken advocate," according to the Washington Post. For starters, Winfrey will host her first-ever presidential fundraising affair at her 42-acre ocean-view estate, which is expected to raise more than $3 million for Obama's campaign.

This move demonstrates just how celebrities and journalists possess an unfair loophole to get around modern campaign finance restrictions: donation of valuable labor.

Normally, an individual is only able to make contributions up to $2,300 to a presidential candidate. However, Oprah's use of her own personal time to "stump" for Obama doesn't technically have any monetary value associated with it, although one could imagine such endorsement going for several million dollars if it were for sale. She admitted it herself in a recent interview with Larry King, saying that "[her] value to him -- [her] support of him -- is probably worth more than any other check that [she] could write."

Matthew Mosk of the Washington Post describes Oprah's potential non-monetary "arsenal":
[her] television program that reaches 8.4 million viewers each weekday afternoon, according to the most recent Nielsen numbers. Her Web site reaches 2.3 unique viewers each month, “O, the Oprah Magazine,” has a circulation of 2 million, she circulates a weekly newsletter to 420,000 fans and 360,000 people have subscribed to her Web site for daily “Oprah Alerts” by e-mail.

Of course, Winfrey's show is not subject to any "equal time" obligations, because the Federal Communication Commission rules don't apply to news programs, interview shows and documentaries in which the candidate is not the sole focus. Of course, just associating her name with Obama will convey the message without too much TV time being necessary. After all, this is the woman who can make her loyal followers read any book she wants just by mentioning it on TV.

The goal of campaign finance restrictions was supposed to be to make sure certain individuals don't wield undue power over the political process. But, under the current regime, no individual, rich or poor, can write a candidate a check for more than $2300, while other famous people, who happen to have media outlets (and are most likely are rich, too), can donate their valuable labor and branding in amounts far exceeding that.

Perhaps we need to retool the system, either by prohibiting celebrities from donating otherwise valuable labor such as speaking at rallies or hosting fundraisers, or by letting individuals donate money to match the effect of media/celebrity endorsement. Whatever the solution, the imbalance is real, and if Oprah's participation pushes Obama over the top and gets him the nod over Hillary (who has the support of billionaires like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett), some might want to get cash donations back in the good graces of the system.