“There are two things that are important in politics. The first is money and I can’t remember what the second one is.”— Mark Hanna
Allow me to begin by saying that Ken Vogel has written a marvelous piece of reportage. While the ends of his project are quite obvious, viz., exposing the appalling extent to which money can buy influence in politics in our post- citizens united era, he does quite a good job of keeping his personal views on the subject a mystery. It is well, then, that I am not a journalist, for there is a great deal of opinion to be derived from this much-needed book that I will be happy to provide.
The book takes the reader on a wild jaunt through the dark underworld of political fundraising. Peppered throughout the narrative are vindictive little personal asides on security guards and politicians who rubbed the author the wrong way. He also is wont to patting himself on the back for describing “never before reported” events. Despite these unidignified and distracting asides, the book is a true eye-opener. We all know its bad, but most probably didn’t know it was not this bad. As interesting as the new world of political fundraising is in general, it is really the characters that capture me. It is chock full of captivating personas, from donors like Sheldon Adelson and the Mostyns; to operatives like the wily Karl Rove and the reluctant Jim Messina; to the politicians themselves: archetypal rich guy Mitt Romney to the indecisive and confused personage of President Obama.
I say confused because as the story opens, the reader is taken to a fundraiser in Seattle in 2012, where Obama finally decided to embrace big-donor politics despite his longtime opposition to such fund-raising tactics. There is no doubt that Obama’s vaunted campaign machine with its huge donor and volunteer base was a remarkable democratic achievement. His use of technology combined with his outsider status created and mobilized a base that continues to be significant as it evolved from the Obama campaign into Organizing for America, an “issues based” grassroots organization. At the Seattle fundraiser, the President wistfully muses that
“I may be the last presidential candidate who could win the way I won… who was able to mobilize and had the time and the space to mobilize a grassroots effort…[who]started off small and was able to build.”
Mind you, Obama is saying all this at a mega-donor fundraiser surrounded by people like Bill Gates and Costco founder Jeff Brotman. Obama’s very reluctant path to accepting mega-donor politics (and the irony of his eventual decision to jump in) drives the narrative for the Democratic side. Here is a party that loathes the entire idea of mega-donor politics, but is forced to adapt to the situation in order to play by the rules of the game as they are. It is an interesting evolution: the 2010 midterms, when Obama stuck with his ideals and received the tea party congress, the 2012 election, Obama finally realized that he must play the game, and into 2014 when Democrats fully embraced mega-donor politics as they hadn’t done since the Clinton era.
With the benefit of hindsight, we now know that the Democratic party couldn’t overcome the tough electoral map, demographic problems and voter indifference they faced. It just wasn’t their year. As much as the President would like to deny that it was another “shellacking,” as he described the 2010 midterms, the election was actually a very clear message from voters. Staying home is a vote, too. The winds will be much more favorable in 2016, because, as any pundit will tell you, midterm and presidential electorates are two very different things. Don’t forget that the Clinton machine, reveling in the citizens united environment is back in the game as well.
One thing that the author didn’t cover in the book that deserves discussion is the vaunted Mayday PAC, the avowed purpose of which was to use big money to remove big money from politics. Right. During the 2014 midterms, Mayday PAC failed miserably to affect any outcomes in the elections it sought to influence. After the midterms this year, Mr. Vogel wrote an article, aptly titled “How to waste $10 million,” on the subject. It really explains why it was futile for Mayday PAC, President Obama, and the entire Democratic coalition to resist big money as they did- it’s simply a non-issue amongst voters. Voters would rather have politicians work together to solve the problems the country is facing rather than worry about things like campaign finance. As Mr. Vogel explains at the end of his book, it will likely take some sort of crisis for voters to demand reform.
One other point I’d like to highlight from the author’s conclusions: big donors do not make their donations in any sort of self-interest or to make their businesses more profitable. It is not lobbying by other means. It is, as Mr. Vogel points out, a sort of hobby, where rich donors buy access to the campaigns. He describes many a donor convention where attendees are invited to “strategy sessions” and presentations by political pundits who speak on policy and politics.
The other side of the story revolves around Karl Rove, the Koch brothers, and Mitt Romney. Karl Rove used a good bit of ingenuity seize the moment in the months after the citizens united decision. He was actually involved in a donor mobilization scheme that looked much like a super PAC before citizens united. The idea was nixed when the donors’ lawyers decided it was probably illegal. Imagine Mr. Rove’s delight when the supreme court decision was announced in early 2010. He wasted no time setting about in building his American Crossroads-centered empire. More importantly, he actually coordinated with other groups, putting himself at the front of the establishment Republican fundraising machine, commanding a huge empire of donors, fundraisers and PACs. Only one thing stood in his way of total domination of the vast right-wing conspiracy: the “Kochtopus.”
The Koch empire, centered around the organization Americans For Prosperity, is a labyrinthine and multitudinous mix of political organizations supposedly involved in issues only advocacy. Mr. Vogel calls the entire apparatus the “Kochtopus.” What is certain is that the organization was so effective and well-run that it gave the Republican party fundraising wing (as well as American Crossroads) a run for its money in 2010 and 2012. This resulted in primary challenges from the right for many establishment Republicans and general disarray in Republican ranks that, although less salient, has lasted to this day (for example, the uncoordinated and asymmetrical response from various Republican lawmakers on the Obama executive action on immigration).
The book also gives a great narrative run down of the 2012 election through the big donor lens, focusing particularly on how damaging outside money from the likes of Sheldon Adelson and Foster Friess was for the Republican primary. These two prominent businessmen provided the life support for the Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum campaigns after they were left for dead by everyone else in the political and donor world. The result: Mitt Romney had to deal with a lot more divisive and nasty primary rhetoric than he would have otherwise, making him a harder sell to the general public when he finally became the nominee.
All of this leads to my hypothesis: despite their advantage in large-donor fundraising, big money actually hurts Republicans in the long run. It weakens the party, and allows rich individuals with little political sense and extreme views dictate the direction the party will take (think government shutdown) with little regard to long term strategy or political feasibility. The party should be responsible for big picture strategy and making sure that their Congressional caucuses support them in this. As the big money becomes a more and more powerful voice, the party voice gets smaller and smaller.
Resistance to compromise will ultimately result the deterioration of our democracy, for it relies on compromise to function. And big money ultimately means less incentive to compromise.