In Defense of Super PAC Moneymen

The big-bucks donors to the 2012 campaign complain they are being demonized. They’re right. Michelle Cottle on what these millionaires are doing right.

Landov; AP Photo

Thursday, Politico ran a story about how SuperPAC megadonors are feeling ill-treated these days: misunderstood, vilified, abused even. As deep pockets like Foster Friess, Bill Maher, and Frank VanderSloot tell it, funneling gajillions of dollars into the electoral system isn’t nearly as fun or fulfilling as you might think—especially since both political teams have declared open season on the opposition’s funders, vowing to subject their lives to the sort of media vivisection ordinarily reserved for terrorism suspects and Supreme Court nominees.

To all this, I say: These guys are right. We should stop hating on the moneymen.

This isn’t about the battle over transparency. Transparency is both a public good and a political necessity. Examining megadonors’ business dealings is not just reasonable, it is the only sane course of action. We the people have a right and a responsibility to know exactly what interests these guys are hoping to advance and why. But targeting them personally with insults, investigations, accusations, and (in the more passionate corners of the blogosphere) threats is taking things too far.

As Politico notes: “Their personal lives are fodder for news stories. President Barack Obama and his allies have singled out conservative mega-donors as greedy tax cheats, or worse. And a conservative website has launched a counteroffensive targeting big-money liberals.”

Not that any of this will come as a surprise to George Soros, who ranks right up there with Satan and Stalin on the right’s list of evildoers.

Don’t misunderstand: I worry about the corrupting influence of money in politics as much as anyone—more than most, in fact, having reported on some truly outlandish scandals. But our system is what it is: Money = Speech. Handed those rules, there’s no point in getting cheesed off at the people who a) know how the system works, b) want it to work for them, and c) bother getting into the game.

Point “c” is obviously the key here. I mean, we’d all like the system to work for us, right? Well, these guys have several spare millions lying around, they are smart enough to know what candidates will promote their pet policies, and they are willing to sink money into often quixotic crusades (Newt for president? Please!) instead of dropping seven or eight-figures on, say, another private jet.

By contrast, most of us do little more than bitch loudly about how screwed up government is, and, maybe, if we feel like it, and it isn’t raining, get up off our asses and vote on Election Day--although not much more than a majority of us do that even in a presidential race. In 2008—a banner year in terms of turnout—not quite 57 percent of eligible voters cast a ballot. You have to go back 40 years to find a number that high (60 percent).

For midterms, turnout hovers in the 30s, and the number of people who vote in presidential primaries is laughable. Take this GOP cycle: crunching the data for the 13 states that voted up through Super Tuesday, the Bipartisan Policy Center found that only 11.5 percent of eligible voters cast a ballot. In a year when every Republican from Bangor to Baja is itching to ship President Obama back to Kenya, this indicates a startling lack of involvement. From these numbers, one might assume that the only thing Americans care about less than their next president is CNN’s primetime lineup.

Not to pick on one party more than the other. After all, if all those Dem-leaning minorities in Texas voted at the same rate as the white population, that state would turn fiercely purple, if not outright blue, pretty quickly. But they don’t. And so Republican pols can dabble in over-the-top immigrant bashing with little fear.

Not that any of this is news. I bring up this enduring electoral reality merely to suggest that demonizing people—even really rich people—for taking advantage of the political rules they have been handed is a bit like complaining about American League teams taking advantage of the designated hitter rule.

If you don’t like the way politics is now being played, don’t bother taking out after Friess, Soros et al. like some crazy lynch mob. Grab your pitchforks and head for the steps of the Supreme Court.