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Dems Can’t Decide: Is Money in Politics Good or Evil?

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As they approach fateful Congressional elections this November, schizophrenic Democrats can’t answer a direct and highly relevant question: do they consider it good or evil for wealthy citizens to spend their money to influence public opinion on key political issues? Do they believe that the expenditure of literally hundreds of millions of dollars for partisan purposes enlightens the electorate or corrupts our public officials?

On the one hand, the Democratic record of raising and spending funds in this election cycle demonstrates their enthusiastic practical embrace of the idea of deploying big money as a potent electoral tool. In August, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee raised a staggering $10.2 million dollars, more than doubling the $4.4 million take for its GOP counterpart. According to public filings, the Dems boasted $54 million cash on hand, compared to $45.7 million for the Republicans.

The nonpartisan Wesleyan Media Project found that the Democrats and their SuperPac allies ran more TV ads than the Republicans in nine of the 10 most competitive Senate races this November. Moreover, the Wall Street Journal reported that since July, the largest SuperPacs identified with Democrats raised four times the money collected by SuperPacs backing the GOP.  To date, these liberal groups have outspent their conservative rivals by a margin of $60 million to $38 million.

This Democratic financial edge hardly represents a new development. In 2008, candidate Obama initially promised to abide by legal spending limits and to accept public funds for his campaign. The president and his Democratic allies not only abandoned that pledge, but shattered all records with general election expenditures approaching $850 million – vastly exceeding the $550 million spent by McCain (who took public funds and abided by spending limits) and the conservative organizations supporting him. In 2012, history repeated itself: Romney raised and spent more than any other Republican nominee in history (some $1.02 billion) but Obama and his well-heeled backers still outspent him by more than $100 million.

Campaign spending at these levels may violate good taste and good sense but neither party appears to have violated the law. For Democrats, however, their traditional pose as the compassionate party of the downtrodden and oppressed fits uneasily with their current position as the party of big bucks. The president spends vastly more time raising dough at $30,000 a plate dinners than he does handing out bread at soup kitchens. No one should assume that the hundreds of millions in Democratic coffers comes primarily from modest donations by grannies or minimum wage workers. The Senate Majority PAC, run by former staffers for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, has generated $33 million in donations to date, far more than any other SuperPac aligned with either party. Its prominent contributors include climate change obsessive Tom Steyer, a hedge fund billionaire, who kicked in $5 million, and Michael Bloomberg, who paused from his tireless efforts to limit soda gulps and regulate ammo clips, to cough up another $2.5 million.

Personally, I salute Steyer and Bloomberg for their obvious sincerity and recognize their good intentions in devoting excess cash to promoting their political principles rather than acquiring another yacht or private plane. The government doesn’t try to limit what Burger King can spend in advertising fast food or what Ford can invest to sell its cars, and our elected representatives ought to feel even more wary about attempts to stifle any form of political expression. It’s a ridiculous and in fact dangerous notion to give established politicians the right to regulate advertising and advocacy in the very elections on which their power depends.

If the Democrats acknowledged these simple truths I’d have no complaint with their free-spending ways. But the president and his allies persist in portraying money in politics as the root of all evil at precisely the moment that they throw around their cash with unprecedented abandon. This isn’t hypocrisy, exactly – Democratic apologists insist that as long as the law allows SuperPacs to flourish, either party would be foolish to leave their potential untapped.

But if it doesn’t show hypocrisy to denounce political spending at the same time you’re spending at record levels it does, at the very least, demonstrate deep confusion. The left can’t decide whether pumping money into campaigns counts as virtuous or vicious. The president uses a State of the Union Address to denounce the Citizens United decision for opening the floodgates to new spending, but then splashes happily in the tidal wave that follows. Leading Democrats in the Senate push for a Constitutional Amendment to limit the ability of the super-rich to lavish money on favorite causes but revel in their simultaneous success in winning just such suspect contributions to their own struggling campaigns. Across the country, progressive activists denounce the Koch Brothers as dastardly deviants for giving millions to conservative campaigns at the same time that they honor other billionaires as heroes when they plow even more money into liberal propaganda.

A personal analogy casts some light on the anomalous situation. I’ve stridently denounced the popularity of pot ever since I attended college in the wild and woolly ‘60’s. But I’ve also resided in the State of Washington for the last eighteen years and in 2012, over my strenuous objections, the voters cast their misguided ballots to legalize marijuana. This doesn’t mean that I’m suddenly ready to wait in line at one of the local Cannabis counters to purchase the demon weed, even though I now enjoy an unquestioned legal right to do so. I won’t smoke marijuana because my objection to the stuff is deep-seated and genuine. It doesn’t matter that it’s legal; I still think it’s a bad idea.

By the same token if the Democrats honestly and earnestly distrusted the infusion of big money into politics, they’d resist the temptation to solicit and employ such funds, even if they can do so within the limits of the law. If liberals insist that big donors corrupt the process with their questionable contributions then they ought to turn them away rather than inviting them to lavish fundraising dinners.

I don’t expect Democrats to stop raising and spending money, but I would appreciate it if they could begin to cut back on all the incoherent rants about the malevolent influence of filthy lucre on our politics and politicians. If they continue their complaints at the same moment that they bundle huge accumulations of cash for partisan purposes they would seem to offer a distressing answer to the question of whether money plays a good or evil role in our elections. They’ve apparently concluded that when the bucks go to them, it’s all for the good, but when they flow to the opposition it’s an example of pure evil.

This column originally appeared at TruthRevolt.org on September 23, 2014.

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  1. James  •  Oct 5, 2014 at 10:25 am

    Also, the Democrats (and to a lesser the Republican party as well) are hedging their bets for the day when ‘money in politics” does become very unpopular with the voting public. Right now, the voting public is not yet fired up about getting rid of ‘money in politics’, although there is a committed group trying to do just that; but that time will probably soon come and both political parties want to be positioned on the right side of limiting ‘money in politics’ when the time does come.

  2. Randy Marsh  •  Oct 16, 2014 at 2:52 pm

    It’s election time and Michael is sounding like a conservative version of Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, just mirroring her sophistry; he is the one who is confused & inconsistent. Numerous polls show that most Democrats as well as many independents & Republicans want an end to the addiction of politicians relying mostly on a few big donors for their political ads. But only the Democrats should break the habit? Unilateral dsarmament doesn’t work in political wars. Politicians are not just a “product” being sold like burgers or cars; what’s actually being sold is political access to a limited amount of political offices. Reliance on big donors means laws, especially laws regarding campaign finance, are written to favor them, which isn’t the same as the public interest. And enforcememt of laws is often gutted under their influence.
    The “more speech is better mantra” is a feel-good slogan that isn’t borne out by what you seen on TV. Most political ads take evidence out of context; only when a political opponent totally screws up can an ad stick to the truth. The typical voter isn’t checking Politifact to verify the facts. When an opponent has the $ to respond to a distortion, the voter doesn’t know who to believe. More campaign money amplifies the confusion and hardly “educates” the voter.
    The independent PACS are a good example. Remember the “Swift Boat ” ads when Kerry ran for president? Byron York of the conservative National Review set out to reconstuct in detail where Kerry was, where the accusers were,etc., in an article in an August 2005 issue of NR. He concluded only 2 of the 18 accusations were plausible. The Koch brothers initiated “dark money” pacs, where 1 or 2 large donors who remain unidentified provide most of the $; corporate names are used instead. This makes it difficult for the average voter to know who is funding the ads; voters strongly opposed to a candidate or political position may not want to buy the products of a large donor’s business.
    Even Michelle Bachmann says the amount of campaign spending is ridiculous; she says the more restrictive Minnesota laws are working fine in her state’s elections. Congresspersons now spend several hours a day raising $ for the next election; they should be spending their time resolving legislative issues, not engaging in an arms race for the political wars. Those ads you see about legislators missing so many committee meetings? It’s usually because they’re out raising funds instead.

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