The Biggest Myth of 2012

Column: It’s the idea that liberal donors don’t ask for anything in return

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August 24, 2012

I don’t know whether President Obama or Mitt Romney will win on November 6, but I do know what the MSNBC talking heads will say in the event that Obama loses. They will say that Republican billionaires bought the election; that Republican legislators suppressed the minority vote through onerous photo identification requirements; and that Romney frightened white working class voters into thinking Obama favored minorities over other groups. They will say the 2010 Citizens United decision allowed Republican billionaires to inject undisclosed "dark money" into American politics, and Democrats could not compete because they had no financial interest at stake, no Charles Koch or Sheldon Adelson of their own.

I also know that every rationale uttered by Chris Matthews and Rachel Maddow and Ed Schultz will advance their theological belief in the moral purity and benevolent intentions of modern day progressives. This foundational idea—that Republicans act out of self-interest while Democrats act out of the public interest—is the keystone to the self-conceptualization and self-idealization of your everyday Democrat. It's simplistic and bogus. And it is the biggest myth of campaign 2012.

Take for example the left-wing activist Jane Mayer’s latest article in the New Yorker, "Schmooze or Lose," in which the author of factually challenged diatribes against Vice President Cheney and Charles and David Koch argues that President Obama, despite holding a record number of fundraisers, has not accumulated as much money as he would like in 2012 because he is "disheartened" by the "top-dollar gamesmanship unleashed by the Citizens United ruling," and because his "attitude toward money" is "complicated." Last week the Pew Research Center announced that 56 percent of the country still believes in the credibility of the mainstream media. Mayer’s work should be enough to bring the Pew number to below 50 percent.

Mayer writes that Obama and the DNC have $127 million on hand—Romney and the RNC have $186 million—not because Obama for America has burned through cash at a remarkable rate in an attempt to define Romney negatively, but because rich liberals want to feel "a sense of intimacy with the president" (this was not a problem for Bill Clinton). Obama however, unlike the only Democrat since FDR to win reelection, keeps his distance from wealthy contributors. Why? Mayer says Obama "may be less awed by wealth than others" in part because he "continues to see economic success as the result of many factors besides individual effort." The donors didn’t build that, in other words.

Mayer seems to have gullibly accepted the administration’s self-serving explanation for the drop-off in support, a fairy-tale that flatters Obama’s sense of intellectual and moral superiority while making Democratic donors look like immature crybabies. The remarkable thing is that the donors do not seem to mind. Mayer’s article is stuffed with their anonymous complaints—the transparency these rich liberals claim to support does not appear to extend to journalism. They say Obama isn’t friendly, he never calls, he once refused to pose for photos at White House holiday parties, his staff is haughty, he does not hold enough dinners, he is "unusually self-contained," etc., etc.

One realizes after a while however that the donor’s gripes are just as self-indulgent and self-flattering as the spin from team Obama. What binds the disparate threads of Mayer’s piece together is its assumption of good faith on the part of progressives and bad faith on the part of Republicans. This kindergarten-level reasoning is presented matter-of-factly, as though American politics at the highest level had all the subtlety of a Disney cartoon.

Mayer says the goal of most Democratic donors is simply "social affirmation." She quotes a "former Obama adviser" who says, "Usually, it’s not about favors." But "usually" describes a custom with little to no chronological specificity. How many times exactly do progressive donors stop behaving "as usual" and ask the politicians whom they have bankrolled for something in return? This is a question that "Schmooze or Lose" does not even try to answer. Instead Mayer turns to a "frustrated Obama fund-raiser" who tells her, "Unlike Republicans," liberals "have no business interest being furthered by the donation—they just like to be involved."

Yet Mayer discusses in the very next paragraph a June fundraiser organized by billionaire investor Marc Lasry, whose financial support for Obama in 2012 must be totally unrelated to the fact that the White House was kind enough to give a prestigious job to one of his sons (a detail that is of course left out by Mayer); and whose email solicitation to his fellow superrich liberals dangled the possibility that a $35,000 donation would buy a chance to ride in the presidential motorcade.

"It is an article of faith among some Democrats," Mayer writes, "that liberals give money to politicians for altruistic reasons, whereas Republicans make campaign contributions as self-serving investments, in order to protect future profits." She charitably quotes three words from Jonathan Collegio, a spokesman for the GOP-aligned Super PAC Crossroads GPS, who says accurately that the charge is "puerile." But Mayer then shoves Collegio off the stage almost as quickly as she brought him on—no room for his apostasy in the hallowed pages of the New Yorker.

The source who replaces Collegio, Tom Perriello, "a former Democratic congressman from Virginia who was defeated in 2010 after a flood of outside conservative spending in his district"—he was trounced 51 percent to 47 percent by Rep. Robert Hurt even after President Obama intervened in the race—tells Mayer, from his perch at the secretly funded Center for American Progress, that "Oil, coal, and chemical companies have billions at stake," which is why these industries contribute so much money to campaigns. Not mentioned by Mayer is the identity of the largest recipient of donations from energy giant BP in the 2008 cycle: Barack Obama. Not mentioned by Mayer are the billionaire board members of Periello's organization, such as Tom Steyer, who have made millions off of investments in the clean energy firms for which the Center for American Progress so lustily flacks.

These solar, wind, ethanol, and electric car companies are almost entirely dependent on government subsidies and mandates for their very existence, and have received billions of dollars in taxpayer-financed loans since Obama became president. One investor in such enterprises is George Kaiser, an Obama bundler involved in the failed solar panel manufacturer Solyndra who discussed the company in one of his visits to the White House. His name does not appear in Mayer’s article. Nor does the name Peter Schweizer, who reports in his classic exposé Throw Them All Out that more than 70 percent of loans issued by the Department of Energy under Obama went to companies with ties to Democratic bundlers and donors.

Mayer does acknowledge, in her fleeting encounter with Collegio, that Democratic campaigns are funded in part by "major unions promoting their members’ economic interests." But there she drops the matter of labor influence in American politics. One presumes this is because Mayer is so credulous that she actually believes the unions are only "promoting their members’ economic interests," when in fact unions actually do something quite different: They promote their leaders’ political interests, which are often unrelated and even inimical to the day-to-day life of the rank and file. (A fact which union members seem increasingly aware of: How else to explain Scott Walker's strong showing among union households in June's Wisconsin recall election?)

The $4 billion unions spent directly and indirectly on political activities between 2005 and 2011 seems unworthy of Mayer’s notice or of her serious investigation; much less how that money, from organizations that reward senior officials with salaries far above the national average, saw a financial return in White House visits, friendly Labor Department policies, prevailing wage regulations in stimulus contracts, and an auto bailout that favored the United Auto Workers over creditors and non-union employees.

No one familiar with Mayer’s work could be surprised by her blatant disregard of news reports that undermine the idea that Democratic donors are somehow morally superior to Republican ones. On Valentine’s Day 2012, the Washington Post reported, "$3.9 billion in federal grants and financing flowed to 21 companies backed by firms with connections to five Obama administration staffers and advisers." An April report in the New York Times "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." After Obama reversed his position and endorsed same-sex marriage in May, the Post disclosed, "A review of Obama’s top bundlers, who have brought in $500,000 or more for the campaign, shows that about one in six publicly identify themselves as gay." In June the Huffington Post "compared the State Department diplomatic list with information on 2008 contributions and found 28 individuals of ambassadorial rank who had raised a total of more than $14 million for the president."

"Schmooze or Lose" had not been on newsstands for more than a few days when the New York Times came out with a blockbuster report on the administration’s relationship with the Exelon Corporation, an Illinois-based utility giant whose executives "were early and frequent supporters of Mr. Obama as he rose from the Illinois State Senate to the White House." Rahm Emanuel helped create this energy beast. David Axelrod consulted for it. One of Exelon’s board members, Jim Rogers, is the chairman of another huge utility, Duke Energy, and a major backer of this year’s Democratic National Convention. "White House records show that Exelon executives were able to secure an unusually large number of meetings with top administration officials at key moments in the consideration of environmental regulations that have been drafted in a way that hurt Exelon’s competitors, but curb the high cost of compliance for Exelon and its industry allies," the Times reported. I hasten to add that the Washington Free Beacon broke the story of how Exelon "won a 20-year contract to provide renewable energy to 10 State Department facilities, including its Foggy Bottom headquarters, as well as a portion of the White House campus" with solar panels manufactured in American prisons.

Does Jane Mayer read? This is not a rhetorical question. She quotes another anonymous donor who asks, "Where’s Penny Pritzker? Where’s George Soros?" Yet one does not need a GPS to discover that the Hyatt heiress Pritzker was on Air Force One with the president in late July, when the discussion no doubt was confined to how Pritzker "would like to be involved." One of Mayer’s informants says that the hedge fund billionaire Soros, who like Pritzker has given the maximum individual contribution to Obama, "is not inclined to take an outsized role in the 2012 campaign." Why? A "Democratic donor" says: "He feels hurt." Aw. Or maybe he’s tied up with his twenty-something ex-girlfriend’s $50-million lawsuit; or planning his upcoming wedding to a 40-year-old video yoga instructor; or investing in Manchester United after the soccer team inked a $600 million endorsement deal with U.S. government-backed GM.

Or maybe Soros is busy with the Democracy Alliance, the secretive organization of Democratic donors that he helped organized in 2005 and in which he continues to participate. Mayer describes the Alliance as "a group of wealthy liberal donors led by Rob McKay, an heir to the Taco Bell fortune." That is true, but Mayer does not mention Soros’s involvement in the organization. The ace reporter who exposed the secretive Koch brothers does not even deign to note that the Democracy Alliance refuses to disclose the identities of its members, let alone the organizations that receive their generous financial support. She focuses instead on shoe magnate Arnold Hiatt: "In November, Hiatt asked the President to speak to the group, but Obama declined; the White House said that he was too busy." Ah, well. I guess that settles it. No Democracy Alliance for Obama.

Except here, too, Mayer omits inconvenient truths. Joe Biden must not be busy at all, because he personally addressed a Democracy Alliance conference in November 2011, a few months before the Alliance made the strategic decision to focus more on electing Democrats to office and less on the utopian cause of the moment. Nor was Obama "too busy" in January of this year, when his motorcade spirited him to the St. Regis hotel near the White House, where he solicited funds at an event organized by McKay and whose attendees, according to Politico, were "mostly alliance members." Neither solicitation appears in the New Yorker. Indeed, while Mayer goes on at length about McKay, she somehow fails to inform the elite readership of the New Yorker that the gordita-muncher sits on the board of Obama's own secret money machine, Priorities USA, last seen accusing Mitt Romney of murder.

A similar cognitive blind spot must be responsible for the bizarre way in which Mayer handles Dreamworks CEO and Hollywood mogul Jeffrey Katzenberg, one of Obama’s biggest supporters and a multi-million-dollar donor to Priorities USA.

Mayer writes: "Katzenberg has been invited to a state dinner at the White House, but he has never met privately with the President." No, not privately. Just publicly: Are we really to believe Obama had no meaningful interaction with one of his biggest donors during the White House event? Obama has called Katzenberg "an extraordinary friend," and a "remarkable" man. Why does Mayer not report on the $15 million fundraiser Katzenberg co-sponsored at George Clooney’s home, where the president said,

I want to thank Jeffery not just for this evening but for his tenacious support and advocacy since we started back in 2007. He has just been consistently been there for me through thick and through thin. Sometimes the 2008 campaign gets romanticized and everybody says how perfect it was and I have to remind them, no, I was there. (Laughter.) And the only person I don't have to remind is Jeffery, because he was there through all the ups and downs.  And occasionally he would call and say, Barack, I don't think things are working the way they're supposed to. (Laughter.)  But no matter where we were and what phase we were in, in that campaign, he stuck with us.  And over the last three and a half years he's remained just an extraordinary friend.

So, Jeffery, thank you for everything you've done. (Applause.)

Earlier this year Katzenberg was among the guests at a private luncheon at Vice President Biden’s residence for Xi Jinping, who is presumed to become the next president of China this fall. Katzenberg required Xi’s personal approval for a major deal to open an animation studio in China. Dreamworks, meanwhile, is under investigation by the SEC for its dealings with China. Needless to say, none of this shows up in Mayer’s "report."

Are we really to believe the office of the vice president when it denies that the studio deal was discussed at the lunch? Are we really to stretch and contort and manipulate the facts surrounding Katzenberg’s generous support for Obama so that they conform to a prefabricated notion of liberal altruism? Isn’t it more accurate—isn’t it more honest—to simply admit that donors to political causes are human beings whose motives are a grab bag of the noble and the ignoble?

Perhaps reporters parrot the cliché that progressive contributors do not expect anything in return for their donations in order to rationalize their own overwhelming support for Democratic candidates. Perhaps reporters are unable to conceive how they, too, might benefit personally from liberal economic and regulatory policies—from generous government grants and fellowships, from government support for NPR and PBS and other "public interest" media, from loopholes that exempt journalists and newspapers from campaign finance regulations, from juicy public relations jobs in government and in the private sector flacking for a larger welfare state. Or perhaps reporters are simply partisans donning the ripped and shoddy cloak of "objectivity."

Whatever the reason, Jane Mayer has deceived her readers to advance a partisan lie. The true story of Obama and campaign finance is a tale of reversal and hypocrisy when the chips are down, not a story of our president’s "pragmatic" and "self-contained" nature. It is a tale of a young and inexperienced president alienating the very constituencies that helped bring him to office and then running to Hollywood when the checking account got low. It is a tale of self-dealing and access buying masked as enlightened self-interest. Don’t tell me liberals are anything other than human. It’s insulting.