The Rainmakers

Column: Where would Democrats be without Charles and David Koch?

Charles and David Koch
Charles and David Koch / AP
January 17, 2014

Beleaguered, adrift, defensive, angry, eager to escape from attacks on Obamacare, President Obama and his allies have a secret weapon with which to rally their base. This voice-activated device is incredibly easy to use. One need only utter the words "Koch brothers," and the financial apparatus of the Democratic Party begins to whir.

Connecting the billionaires of the Democracy Alliance to the labor, green, and race groups of the Democracy Initiative, linking the trial lawyers and Hollywood producers to the DNC and campaign committees, tying in the bumper-sticker activists to Ready for Hillary, the Democratic money machine generates a lot of energy indeed. Emails are sent. Articles are written. Checks are cut. And the Democratic Senate might survive Election Day 2014.

The weapon was put to use on Dec. 19 when Organizing for America, the White House advocacy group, sent a mass email with the following subject line: "Team Obamacare … or Team Koch Brothers?" Here, after more than two months of bad news for President Obama’s signature law, was the last play of the Obamacare supporter. "Health care reform is helping millions of Americans today," the email said. "But people like the Koch Brothers are trying to take it away. Which side are you on?" may be broken, insurance plans may have been cancelled by the millions, enrollments may be lower than expected, the ratio of old to young and sick to healthy customers may yet cripple the program, but at least the president is opposed to a pair of septuagenarian libertarian billionaires living in Wichita and New York. You too can show your dislike of these senior citizens, and join "the group that’s fighting back—every single day," all for the affordable price of $15 or $1,000 or, if you are feeling generous, some "other amount." As a 501(c)4 nonprofit, Organizing for America can receive unlimited contributions. So pony up.

I was reminded of the Organizing for America solicitation the other day when I read in the paper that "Ads Attacking Health Law Stagger Outspent Democrats." The article, by Carl Hulse, reported that "since September, Americans for Prosperity, a group financed in part by the billionaire Koch brothers, has spent an estimated $20 million on television advertising that calls out House and Senate Democrats by name for their support of the Affordable Care Act."

According to Hulse, "strategists in both parties agree" that such advertising has made Democrats "increasingly anxious," because many of the incumbents called out by name "lack the resources to fight back." In North Carolina, for example, where incumbent senator Kay Hagan is scared to appear in public with President Obama, Americans for Prosperity is thought to have spent some $5 million in negative ads, whereas the Democratic Senate Majority PAC has spent $1.5 million in her defense. The director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee gets to the point: "Democrats need money at this early stage in order to fight back against the limitless spending of the Kochs."

A front-page article in the New York Times is not as slick as the Millennial-friendly infographics in an Organizing for America email, nor is it as cutting or witty or emphatic or precocious, but it is taken more seriously, and its audience is more elite. Both texts serve the same purpose: alerting Democratic donors to a potential weakness, an emergency, and the necessity of financial reinforcements. Both texts contain the magic words—"Koch brothers"—that inspire the liberal imagination to heights of fear, paranoia, outrage, and self-regard. There are no dog whistles here, no signals audible only to a special class. The cry is as articulate as it is deafening. Democratic incumbents need money. Make checks payable to DNC, DSCC, DCCC, and the Majority PAC. Pronto.

It was the urgent tone of the Times article, the impression it gave of innocents under assault, that reminded me of a piece of spam. It is a style more appropriate to advertising than to news. The everyday reader of the Times might assume that the big bad Republicans have the little red Democrats hopelessly outgunned. But that would be a mistake. Not mentioned in the Hulse piece, nor in the Times at all, is Michael Bloomberg’s recent $2.5 million donation to Majority PAC. As of Jan. 15 of this year Senate Democrats have outraised and outspent Republicans, as have the DSCC and the DCCC. While the RNC has outraised and outspent the DNC, the Democratic Party has outraised and out-spent the Republican Party as a whole. And though Republicans in recent years have had an advantage in outside spending, one need only look at this page to see that Democratic outside groups are just as prominent, and just as profligate, as Republican ones. Contrary to the DSCC spokesman quoted in the Times, the Koch brothers are not the only donors who engage in "limitless spending." On the contrary: In 2013 alone a handful of rich liberals spent more than $25 million influencing politics. In 2014 they will spend more.

To acknowledge such facts would jam up the fundraising machinery of the Democratic Party. The left has spent enormous amounts of time and effort and resources turning Charles and David Koch into bogeymen, and facts that interfere with this effort, that contradict this useful myth, are rebuked, dismissed, debunked, and ignored. Most Americans get up, send the kids to school, go to work, come home to dinner, put the kids to bed, watch some television, and pass out on the couch completely unaware of the Kochs and their supposedly dastardly deeds. But for the people who are aware, for the Silicon Valley moguls as much as for the bobo lawyer and his second-wave-feminist wife, the nightmare image of the Koch brothers has enormous power. This image not only inspires donors to open their checkbooks, it also motivates college students to canvass neighborhoods, to spend nights at phone banks. Where the Democrats would be without Charles and David Koch is anyone’s guess.

So important to the self-identity of the contemporary liberal have the Koch brothers become that they have inspired antitheses. Soros, Katzenberg, Steyer, Bloomberg, McKay—these donors, culled from the ranks of left-wing billionaires and millionaires, have in recent years poured undisclosed amounts of money into partisan and ideological causes. Yet they receive nothing like the scrutiny endured by the Kochs, because unlike the Kochs they are not the central figures in a comprehensive narrative endowed with moral significance, a master-story told by parties and partisans and major news organizations to justify political action.

"We absolutely have to keep battling back, and we can’t let ads go unanswered," said Ty Matsdorf, a Majority PAC operative, to Carl Hulse. I do not doubt that the battle is important for Matsdorf; his salary depends on it. But it is also important for many other people, for financial and professional reasons as well as for social and cultural ones. Not only is a lot of money at stake in the battle between Team Obamacare and Team Koch Brothers, so is the question of which part of the elite—the liberal part or the conservative part—shall rule. And in that battle, whether you are an aspiring blogger, a foundation officer, a newspaper editor, or a global oligarch, it is absolutely critical that the entire world knows exactly which side you are on.