Some lies just won’t go away. In February the Washington Post published an article with the following headline: "Why There’s No Democratic Version of the Koch Brothers’ Organization." It was the umpteenth attempt to explain, in a particularly simplistic manner, how the millionaires and billionaires who donate money to the Democratic Party are nothing, absolutely nothing, like those meanie cancer research philanthropists Charles and David Koch.
The author, Reid Wilson, interviewed "Democratic strategists who deal frequently with high-dollar donors," and these Democratic strategists told him, strategically, that their high-dollar donors are better than Republican ones. "For the Koch brothers, electing the right candidate can mean a financial windfall," Wilson wrote. "Democratic donors revolve more around social issues." On the one hand you have petty, greedy rich men, and on the other you have committed liberals willing to sacrifice for causes they believe in. The morality play writes itself.
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Now, these liberals are not totally selfless, Wilson cautions. They are human beings; they have egos; they seek affirmation. "Donors like being recognized for their philanthropic gestures." Hedge-fund billionaire and radical environmentalist Tom Steyer, for example, "cooperated with the New Yorker when it wrote a profile of him last year." Charles and David Koch, though, "didn’t cooperate when the magazine took a look at their political activities," presumably because "no one needs to send the message that the better-known Koch brothers are there for Republican candidates." So that’s why the Kochs didn’t talk to Jane Mayer.
Does Reid Wilson believe in Santa Claus? His willingness to suspend disbelief when confronted with the image of a mythic creature—the un-self-interested liberal—suggests as much. The words "labor" and "union" appear nowhere in his article, despite the fact that unions are 6 of the 10 top all-time donors recently compiled by OpenSecrets.org, despite the fact that unions spent some $4.4 billion on politics between 2005 and 2011. (Incidentally, every member of the OpenSecrets.org top ten either leaned Democratic or split money evenly between the two parties. The Democrats are not hurting for money.)
Unions, their leadership, and their staff see political giving as "an investment," any non-cross-eyed observer of the political scene would agree, with donations laundered back to the SEIU, AFSCME, NEA, UAW, and others in the form of generous and unsustainable pensions, wage laws benefiting closed shops over free labor, government-mandated dues and contracts, and job protections that make it difficult even for child predators to be fired from schools. That’s an ROI the hosts of the Shark Tank would envy.
Nor did Wilson see fit to mention trial lawyers and other attorneys, whose giving disproportionately favors the Democratic Party, and who are repaid for their donations with opposition to tort reform, and with increased regulations that amount to permanent employment programs for attorneys practicing regulatory, tax, M&A, antitrust, and campaign finance law. But perhaps lawyers don’t figure in Wilson’s calculus. We all know how altruistic and big-hearted they are.
"The coordination between big donors that the Koch network so ably facilitates just doesn’t exist on the Democratic side," Wilson writes. His Democratic sources must not have been invited to the recent meetings of the Democracy Alliance, the secret organization of liberal donors that coordinates giving and builds campaign infrastructure. His sources must not be members of the Democracy Initiative, a vast coalition of liberal interest groups that meets to plan strategy, or of the Campaign for America’s Future. His sources must never have contributed to the online donation clearinghouse Act Blue. Of all of the thousands of Democratic strategists circling the D.C. waters for prey, Wilson seems to have spoken to the poorest and least connected ones available.
I thought of Wilson’s puerile article this week, as I read remarks by White House adviser John Podesta. The day before Podesta’s interview with a roundtable of journalists, several environmental groups had written to the president, urging him not to lift export bans on American liquid natural gas (LNG). Podesta dismissed the environmentalists’ request.
"If you oppose all fossil fuels and you want to turn that switch off tomorrow, that is a completely impractical way of moving toward a clean-energy future," he said, defending the use of natural gas. The greens are "impractical." LNG is the best available alternative to coal-fired power plants, which the White House and EPA want to shut down. "I think we remain committed to developing the resource and using it, and we think there’s an advantage, particularly in the electricity generation sector, to move it forward."
For the Politico reporter who transcribed Podesta’s remarks, the former lobbyist, Clinton chief of staff, and president of the Center for American Progress was not "afraid to part ways with his former compatriots to make the case for the president’s climate agenda, a topic he said he spends about half his time working on." (How does he spend the other half?) In fact the comments were nothing new. Podesta has long supported natural gas.
He’s not alone. His 2012 Wall Street Journal op-ed making the case for natural gas was coauthored with Tom Steyer, the hedge-fund billionaire who is quickly becoming one of the most powerful men in the Democratic Party. Steyer is known mainly for his opposition to the Keystone Pipeline, and for his recent pledge to raise and spend $100 million on behalf of Democrats in this year’s elections. According to Reid Wilson, liberal donors such as Steyer "aren’t going to realize a profit if their chosen candidates win." This is not true.
Steyer pledged to remove himself from the operations of his hedge fund, Farallon Capital Management, in the waning days of 2012, when he was being considered as a possible secretary of Energy in the second Obama administration. But he remains an "outside limited partner" with the firm, and the "bulk" of his billion-dollar fortune is parked there. As of 2012, when Steyer was supporting Democrats, donating millions to Podesta’s Center for American Progress, and otherwise championing natural gas over other forms of energy, Farallon held more than $7 million in shares of gas technology company Fuel Systems Solutions. He was making plenty of money from the Obama administration’s championing of natural gas.
As of the end of 2013, Farallon also held close to $40 million in Kinder Morgan, which is building a competitor to the Keystone Pipeline. When Farallon’s position in Kinder Morgan was exposed last summer—after the Keystone debate had been raging for years—Steyer pledged to sell his share of the stock and donate the profits to charity. Last September, it was revealed that Steyer had backed a UT study on hydraulic fracturing, which showed that the process does not result in dangerous methane emissions. As far as I can determine, Steyer remains an adviser to and backer of EFW Partners, a "global investor in the basic resources critical for economic growth: energy, food, and water." I wonder whether EFW is short or long on LNG.
Just as Politico was publishing its write-up of Podesta’s defense of natural gas, George Soros, another ultraliberal billionaire hedge-fund manager, was increasing his stake in oil and gas company Penn Virginia Corporation. Shares of Penn Virginia spiked on the news that Soros’s fund would take a more active role in restructuring the company, which extracts both shale oil and natural gas. Soros of course is one of the most famous Democratic donors in the world, an architect of the Democracy Alliance, a founder of the Center for American Progress, and a backer of Priorities USA, the Obama Super PAC that, under the leadership of Democratic empire-builder Jim Messina, is shifting its allegiance to Hillary Clinton. George Soros’s net worth is some $23 billion. And we are supposed to pretend that he is not benefiting financially from the energy policies of the Democrats he puts into office.
Pretense and make-believe are thick in the air in Barack Obama’s Washington, where one’s alignment with the regnant values and priorities—one’s allegiance to, or at the very least one’s acquiescence in, the programs of the environmental lobby, the union lobby, the abortion lobby—acts as a sort of baptism, cleansing the ethical and intellectual impurities associated with conservatism, and elevating one to a higher stage of moral development, of righteousness, to a place of clean living and pure intentions where one’s motivations must not be questioned. If only we could capture and export Washington’s emissions of self-deception and gullibility, of media naïveté and partisanship, of the hot air we produce as we convince ourselves that all parties are equal but some parties are more equal than others. That would be a true energy revolution, a genuine "financial windfall."