Fantasy Camp

08.02.14

Is Big Money Politics an Overblown Evil?

We have been conditioned to believe that the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision ceded control of American politics to the rich. But is that really so?

One day I want to write a dystopian political novel set in the not-too-distant future. The novel’s premise would be that America has become a country where nothing works, or is made, or runs on its own. The only remaining economic engine is electioneering—the so-called “endless campaign” will have become truly endless. With the rest of the economy off-shored or robot-ized, politics will have become a vampire squid like Wall Street or Silicon Valley. Karl Rove and David Axelrod will be figures of Gatesian wealth, and stale pizza the latest artisanal food craze.

But, as is so often the case, fantasy is soon to be outstripped by events. Or so it seems to me after reading Big Money, Politico reporter Kenneth P. Vogel’s lively take on the world of campaign finance in the wake of the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling that ripped away whatever minimal constraints there were to prevent a full-scale takeover of politics by the 1 percent of the 1 percent.

The political super-rich are not just different from you or me. They are even different from the merely rich who can spare, say, $1,000 for a favored candidate or cause (a sum so miniscule, Vogel makes clear, as to be hardly worth the postage necessary to solicit it). They have much, much more money, and they apparently have the muscle to keep you away from their parties, as Vogel finds out in some of the book’s most entertaining set pieces.

There is the Koch Brothers soiree at the Renaissance Esmeralda Resort in the California desert, which, after Vogel is 86’d, he receives a suspicious phone call at his hotel and finds out that his rental car is reported stolen. There is the Democracy Alliance—a mostly secretive group of big money progressive donors—party at the D.C. Mandarin, where Vogel is ushered out by an off-duty cop and an Alliance spokeswoman who insists to Vogel that anyone he happened to spot there was strictly off-the-record (a stipulation that Vogel quite amusingly ignores.)

But who are these people? They are not, our suspicions to the contrary notwithstanding, much interested in bending elections their way in order to pad their wallets (megadonors are almost exclusively male). Hiring a few high priced lobbyists is a much cheaper and more effective way to convince regulators to look the other way. Rather, they are political junkies. Whether it’s the Koch Brothers’ Americans for Prosperity, or the liberal Democracy Alliance, or Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS, the major organizations treat their contributors like hedge fund clients, complete with glossy briefing books and power point presentations about the latest polling data or TV ad buy. It’s fantasy camp for wanna-be political operatives, and with not much more of a buy-in than Sotheby’s requires. The difference, of course, is that with auction houses or expensive wines, you more or less get what you pay for.

Democratic donors yearn for the return of the Clintons, who at least know how to make multi-millionaires feel special.

Vogel spins a story of a political culture becoming slowly unbound by previous constraints like party loyalty or seniority. Instead, after Citizens United, the mega donors set up their own shadow parties. They make their own ads, run their own canvassing efforts, and have even started recruiting their own candidates. The results, needless to say, have been mixed, often laughable, rarely dangerous—think of that clown car GOP primary season in the last presidential election. One week at the New York Yankees fantasy camp does not mean you can stand in against Roger Clemens.

An odd side note to all of this is how much better at it Democrats have been than Republicans. The conservative ranks are so flush with outsiders and fringe groups that they end up tripping over one another. Part of the reason for this, Vogel suggests, is that Republicans have never much cared for campaign finance issues, and so are much more comfortable simply throwing their money at the Super PAC wall to see what sticks.

Democrats, by contrast, are still sheepish about playing the big money game, and when they do pony up, they do so with a sigh, mumbling some half-baked metaphor about not fighting with one hand tied behind their back or some such. One is even tempted to admire President Obama, who Vogel calls a hypocrite for decrying the proliferation of big money in politics even as he raises gargantuan sums himself. But at least Obama does seem to genuinely loathe the sucking up required to grease the wheels. Meanwhile, according to Vogel, Democratic donors yearn for the return of the Clintons, who at least know how to make multi-millionaires feel special.

Big Money is a good guide to the players and places in all this, but ultimately Vogel left me hungry. As he tells it, this is a story without much context and with very little past. Reading Big Money, you might get the idea that campaign contributions began with George Soros or the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. How were political campaigns funded in the ’60s, let alone during the Gilded Age? I don’t know, and I didn’t learn it here.

But the biggest question left unexplored is what all of this dough accomplishes. Vogel details some of the quick fortunes top campaign aides have made in this era of big money, but he doesn’t really explain how the bucks corrupt the political process. If the mega-donors aren’t funding political campaigns in the hopes of seeing some kind of payback, what do they want? Why do they bother? And is politics really cleaner when stringent restrictions are put into place?

Vogel’s book focuses on the post-Citizens United landscape, and the implication is that things changed drastically in the wake of that court decision. But really, what changed? that court decision really changed norms more than it changed the rules. There is very little campaign finance that happens now that could not have happened back in 2008, it just didn’t, mainly out of fear by the donor class of running afoul of vague rules and laws. Money infused the political bloodstream long before 2010, and conservatives who howl that they have every right to buy TV ads so long as left leaning outlets like The New York Times get to endorse candidates have a point. Distasteful those ads might be, but restrictions on political speech should be exercised with great deliberation and caution.

In the end though, big money doesn’t seem to matter that much. The cash that the Kochs or the Democratic duo of Steve and Amber Mostyn give to politicians is of little concern to the donors and lets a few old political hands in Washington buy bigger houses. But the real takeaway is that all this cash apparently has little influence on who wins or loses elections.  In a TiVo age, who watches political ads anyway, no matter how specious or bombastic? The Kochtapus takeover is an alarming image, and one Democrats have used with great effectiveness to separate their own partisans from their money, but it still was not enough to even unseat a mildly unpopular president in a bad economic year.

The endless fundraising becomes like an itch that the more the money class scratches, the more they need to. Just a few thousand here, and a few more there, for this devastating TV ad or that new Get Out the Vote Effort,  and our takeover will be at last complete. And the whole huge machinery of it all—the consultants and ad makers and eye buyers and pollsters and the men and women in little black coats catering the fundraiser—grows ever larger, its endless appetite never sated. Try bringing that up at the next confab at the Renaissance Esmeralda, if you really want to be shown the door.