How to Buy an Election

Column: Just ask the Democrats

President Obama / AP
September 28, 2012

For months now I’ve been receiving fundraising emails from the Obama campaign, the Democratic National Committee, the various Democratic congressional committees, and the occasional Democratic campaign. The apocalyptic message of these emails has been mind-numbingly repetitive: A cabal of superrich businessmen is out to deny Barack Obama reelection and install as president Mitt Romney, who will line their pockets in return. Nothing less than the future of democracy is at risk. Donate now—before it’s too late.

Recently, though, the emails have been less apocalyptic. And this is why:  The Democrats’ hysterical solicitations have worked. Not only did Obama outraise Romney in the month of August, he has outraised and out-spent Romney altogether. Listen to Ken Vogel and Dave Levinthal of Politico: "Through the end of August, Romney’s campaign and the party committees and Super PAC supporting it had raised $736 million, compared to $774 million raised by Obama’s campaign and its party and Super PAC allies." So forget about the Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson. If you want to know how to buy an election, ask the Democrats.

The saga of Obama and campaign finance is a case study in cynicism. Throughout his career, Obama has portrayed himself as an opponent of money in politics, even as he has exploited the system at every turn. He said in 2008 that he would take public financing, but then became the first nominee in history to opt out. He said in this cycle that he would not allow his associates to fundraise for a Super PAC, but then changed his mind. He has attacked anonymous political giving, but dispatched Joe Biden to appeal to the shadowy Democracy Alliance last November. He pays no price when he makes such reversals. He and his supporters meekly lament that he is a victim of circumstance. The press nods.

As dusk settles on the campaign, the Obama team’s fundraising strategy comes into focus. On the one hand, they bullied conservative donors. The administration drafted an executive order, never signed, that would have required firms seeking government contracts to disclose their political giving. Campaign manager Jim Messina singled out the Koch-supported Americans for Prosperity for attack. Senior adviser David Axelrod went after Adelson. It just so happened that the IRS and the SEC, respectively, opened investigations into Romney supporters Frank Vandersloot and Adelson (the administration says this is all a coincidence). These efforts may not have stopped wealthy Republicans and conservatives from donating to Romney and outside groups, but who would argue that they have had no affect on the margins?

Meanwhile Obama pandered and shamed apathetic liberal donors into writing checks. Contributions were off at the beginning of the year. Greens were upset that Obama had not been radical enough on the environment. Gay donors were angry that the president had not done enough to support same-sex marriage. Many progressive millionaires and billionaires simply assumed Obama would win in November. So the Keystone pipeline was put on hold, the president reversed himself on same-sex marriage, and a steady barrage of alarming emails was aimed at Democratic in-boxes. Sympathetic articles in the New York Times Magazine and the New Yorker alerted liberal audiences to the fact that the Obama Super PAC was having trouble raising money. Campaign surrogates fostered the misleading impression that Obama was somehow the underdog in the money race.

And it paid off. Last month the pro-Obama Super PAC Priorities USA, the group behind the ad that linked Mitt Romney to a woman’s death by cancer, outraised the Romney-affiliated Super PAC Restore Our Future. Rahm Emanuel is back fundraising for Priorities, and will bring in more cash. On Thursday, Bill Clinton headlined a fundraiser for outside progressive groups. Present at the Clinton speech were members of the Democracy Alliance, who will direct $100 million in pledges this cycle to progressive groups, including Super PACs and campaigns. Late yesterday, progressive moneybags George Soros announced he would pitch in.

The money is not being wasted. Obama is winning the television ad wars. "Mr. Obama and his allies are handily outspending Mr. Romney and the conservative Super PACs working on his behalf in Colorado, Ohio, and New Hampshire," the New York Times reports. Obama outspent Romney two to one in June, in a barrage of negative advertising that defined the challenger as an out-of-touch plutocrat. Obama’s ads, which show up regularly on YouTube and on niche cable channels such as HGTV, are well targeted to his base of young people and single women. These ads are complemented by outside spending from outfits such as Planned Parenthood, which is spending more than $3 million in swing states on ads suggesting Romney wants to repeal the twentieth century. Who knows how much the unions will spend to elect Democrats in 2012: A July Wall Street Journal analysis based on Labor Department reports concluded that the unions spent more than $4 billion on political activity between 2005 and 2011.

The press is so invested in the mirage of Republican financial dominance that it has barely examined the material interests of Obama’s donors. Thursday’s New York Times piece on the pro-Obama Super PAC notes that "the Democratic groups are raising heavily from the party’s traditional, pre-Obama sources of campaign cash: trial lawyers, unions, and Hollywood." All these traditional, pre-Obama groups would benefit financially from a second Obama administration. Trial lawyers benefit from convoluted laws that provide additional opportunities for lawsuits—laws such as the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. Trial lawyers benefit from Democratic administrations (such as Obama’s) and congresses (such as Harry Reid’s Senate and Nancy Pelosi’s House) that prevent meaningful tort reform. The unions benefit from a pliant Labor Department, an open White House, an administration that sandbagged creditors in the auto bailout in order to reward the UAW, Democrats who are eager to cater to public sector workers’ needs, and perhaps, one-day, card-check legislation that would make it easier for them to expand membership and rake in more dues.

Then there is Hollywood, which benefits from complicated tax expenditures for film and television production. No one personifies the rotten relationship between Hollywood and the Obama administration better than DreamWorks SKG executive Jeffrey Katzenberg, one of the largest donors to Priorities USA, who has raised at least $6.6 million for the president since 2008. Katzenberg relied heavily on his ingénue in the White House to secure a lucrative distribution deal on behalf of the MPAA, Hollywood’s trade association—a deal that was personally negotiated between Vice President Biden and incoming Chinese leader Xi Jinping. Soon came under SEC scrutiny. Shortly after the distribution deal was announced, DreamWorks Animation unveiled plans to build a $350 million animation studio in China; according to the New York Times DreamWorks’ partner in the deal is "Jiang Mianheng, the 61-year-old son of Jiang Zemin, the former Communist Party leader and the most powerful political kingmaker of China’s last two decades."

Investors in green energy will also see their fortunes rise thanks to the Energy Department’s mandates, subsidies, and loan guarantees. Obama’s supporters in higher education will prosper from his expanded college subsidies. And yet one cannot say that these interest groups have received anything close to the scrutiny to which the Kochs and Adelson and others have been subjected.

"This isn’t the way our country should work," DNC finance director Hildy Kuryk wrote in a June 18 fundraising email. "Electing someone president of the United States should be a decision that we make as a nation. The outcome shouldn’t be affected by one, or even several, extraordinarily wealthy men." Unless of course the extraordinarily wealthy men are Democrats. Then all is forgiven.