If a campaign finance story is not about David Koch or Sheldon Adelson, do liberals care?
Consider the reaction to Kenneth Vogel’s important report on the winter meeting of the Democracy Alliance, the secretive organization of progressive millionaires and billionaires who finance an extraordinarily byzantine network of liberal foundations and Super PACs that operate with undisclosed "dark money."
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What reaction? Exactly. There wasn’t any.
The left-wing VIPs assembled at the luxury W Hotel across the street from the White House, but only Vogel reported on the story. The gathering did not merit inclusion in either the Washington Post or the New York Times, both of which have offices within blocks of the W, and both of which have devoted reams of newsprint to Mitt Romney’s donor retreats and various Koch-affiliated fundraising summits. Was New York Times campaign finance reporter Nicholas Confessore too busy appearing on NOW with Alex Wagner to cover the event?
More likely the media simply ignore data that complicate their preferred narrative. When it comes to the fraught relationship between money and politics, that narrative is as follows: Money in politics is corrupting only because rich businessmen trade campaign donations to Republicans for low taxes and fewer environmental regulations.
The 2010 Supreme Court ruling in the Citizens United case, the narrative continues, assisted such transactions by treating corporate and union PAC donations as protected speech. Republicans are better at fundraising because they are selfish, whereas Democrats are more concerned with the common good. And when Democrats abandon the principles of campaign finance reform, they do so with heavy hearts and the tragic sense that they could not compete otherwise.
Not only is this fairy tale nonsense, it is the biggest myth in American politics. Liberals use this just-so story to salve their consciences and reinforce their collective prejudices against conservatives. They cannot conceive that progressive donors engage in the exact sort of influence peddling they so lustily condemn.
This willful refusal to face facts leads to repression and confusion. A liberal whose understanding of the 2012 election derived from mainstream media and Team Obama emails would not know that the president’s campaign outraised and outspent Mitt Romney’s campaign by hundreds of millions of dollars. She would be unaware that three of the top five Super PACs were aligned with Democrats. Indeed the overall Republican financial advantage was minimal, a little more than 10 percent. That figure does not include the indirect spending by labor unions that is hard to track. The Democratic Party, meanwhile, has outraised the Republican Party in each of the last three election cycles. Remind me where the GOP’s huge money advantage lies?
The liberal handwringing over Citizens United is all for show. Obama reversed himself on Super PACs in 2012 just as he reversed himself on public financing in 2008.
Earlier this year the Democracy Alliance scraped away groups that were not affixed like barnacles to the hull of the Democratic Party and left alone the groups that were. One of the founders of the Democracy Alliance, the hedge fund investor George Soros, announced at an Alliance luncheon in New York City in late September that he would donate $1 million to Priorities USA Action, the pro-Obama Super PAC that accused Mitt Romney of killing a woman with cancer. Progressives bemoan the influence of big money even as they write seven-figure checks.
Did Obama campaign on removing money from politics or on altering our ridiculous and clearly ineffective campaign finance laws? Has he put such reform at the top of his agenda? Do pigs fly?
The president understands the importance of dark money to the Democratic machine. So do his fellow partisans. We learn from Vogel that the speakers at the three-day Democracy Alliance conference this month included Nancy Pelosi, Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, Sens.-elect Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, representatives from Priorities USA, opposition research outfit American Bridge 21st Century, and pro-abortion rights lobby EMILY’s List.
So the upper echelon of the political party that controls the White House, the Senate, the executive bureaucracy, and is 17 seats away from a House majority is committed to a group of insanely wealthy people who avoid disclosure and accountability by indirectly funding nonprofits. Yet this same party howls that Republicans are in the pocket of wealthy individuals. If only George Soros could buy the Democrats a sense of irony.
Elizabeth Warren is a special case. She and her opponent famously signed a "People’s Pledge" to limit outside spending in the Massachusetts Senate election. But so much depends on the meanings of "spending" and "outside." Not only is Warren linked to the Soros-affiliated think tank Demos through her daughter, who runs it, her campaign was launched with donations from the Soros family and received $2 million in assistance in the final weeks of the contest from the Harry Reid-affiliated Majority PAC. She outraised and out-spent Scott Brown. The Center for Responsive Politics found that she disclosed far less of the sources of her funding than Brown did. Yet no one can doubt she told her secret donors at the Democracy Alliance meeting that as a United States senator she would fight against the influence of the rich.
"Ah," liberals will say, "you haven’t mentioned that these rich liberal donors have no economic interest to pursue." I haven’t because that idea is self-serving baloney. These men and women who have inherited or made their fortunes already may not care whether taxes rise on households making more than $250,000 a year. They can afford it. Yet to assume that tax rates are the only economic interest at work is to hold a crimped and facile view of politics. Taxes on income, capital gains, and dividends are just the beginning.
The individuals and foundations that comprise the Democratic fundraising base in general and the Democracy Alliance in particular benefit from tax subsidies and mandates for non-carbon energy; from government-funded research and development; from trade and tax policies that favor Hollywood and Silicon Valley; from measures that increase union membership and therefore dues to union bosses; from infrastructure spending that directs funds to construction unions; and from housing and development projects that provide well compensated livelihoods to social workers, foundation executives, and—dare one say it—community organizers.
Money buys access and patronage. A New York Times review "showed that those who donated the most to Mr. Obama and the Democratic Party since he started running for president were far more likely to visit the White House than others." The Huffington Post "found 28 individuals of ambassadorial rank who had raised a total of more than $14 million for the president." One such ambassador, Matthew Barzun, grandson of the recently deceased historian Jacques Barzun, quit his post to raise money for Obama’s reelection and was a speaker at the Democracy Alliance’s winter meeting.
Another Times review of the administration’s relationship with utility giant Exelon "shows how familiarity has helped foster access at the upper reaches of government and how, in some cases, the outcome has been favorable for Exelon." The administration assisted DreamWorks Animation CEO and Priorities USA donor Jeffrey Katzenberg in negotiating a deal with Chinese leader Xi Jinping. Performance artist Will Smith felt his donations to Obama earned him the privilege to lobby the administration for rapper T.I.’s release from jail.
It is easy to lose track of these stories since they are buried by a press that focuses myopically and quizzically on the hapless Republicans, on who gives conservatives donations and why, on the minutest hypocrisy in which those conservatives indulge, on the tiniest divisions between the traditionalists and the neocons and the libertarians, on the endless and navel-gazing "soul searching" in which the party of Lincoln and TR and Reagan seems endlessly to engage, on whether or not Obama "likes" McCain and Romney, and on who is preparing to run in a presidential election that is four, yes four, years away. A press interested in equal treatment of the two parties would have noted for example that one of the first meetings Obama held after his reelection was with "labor and civic leaders" (his words) many of whom are tied to the Democracy Alliance. Among the messages conveyed at the discussion was the president’s avowal to keep the money flowing. The left’s investment would continue to earn a dividend.
"We’re not going away," Priorities USA adviser Paul Begala told Politico. Nor would one expect the outside groups and networks to vanish after their remarkable success. Left-wing institutions and pressure groups have recovered after years of retreat from a unified and energetic right. They have resumed construction of the intricate, inefficient, and over-budget public works project known as the American welfare state. The liberal donors want in on the action. There are stories to be told. But is the mainstream media even awake?