How Money Is Deforming Our Politics

The 2010 midterms will go down as one of the most fiercely fought elections in our political history. Nasty campaigns from Connecticut and Wisconsin to California, Alaska, and back to Nevada wiped out the Democratic majority in the House and reduced their unreliable super-majority in the Senate. What was this strife all about? Yes, there were policies to fight over, although the Republicans seem unlikely to repeal health-care legislation. And yes, the chronic problems of our electoral system—the breakdown of party structures, the 24/7 media frenzy, and voter volatility—exacerbated uncertainties and anxieties. And then there was economy. But above all, there was a tsunami of money.

Early in the fall, the New York Times began tracking the slush of money with graphs and charts. Politico ran a fact-filled series on the emergence of independent 401(c) campaign funding. The Washington Post weighed in with the news that three self-financed candidates--Meg Whitman (California), Rick Scott (Florida), and Linda McMahon (Connecticut), together had spent a quarter-billion dollars. Did I hear a national gasp?

The proposition that money matters had its skeptics. David Brooks pooh-poohed money-gate in his New York Times column (October 18). Headlined “Don’t Follow the Money,” Brooks concluded that “money is almost never the difference between victory and defeat.”  A counterintuitive judgment from an expert on class and the American way of life. Still, Brooks raises a good point. If it wasn't the difference between victory and defeat, how did money matter?

Let us consider the possibilities:

Be Rich. Candidates rich enough to fund their own races are intrinsically attractive to political parties, like a free round-trip vacation. Whitman, in California’s gubernatorial race, and McMahon’s senatorial bid in Connecticut smartly preempted their primary challengers and went on to spend millions against their Democratic opponents. Yet both lost. Does that mean money doesn’t matter? Or does it mean, rich, politically untested contenders are high-risk choices for a party? Had it not been for the money, the primaries might have produced a competitive Republican candidate in both contests, a candidate with enough political experience to avoid the undocumented housekeeper who did in Whitman and the obscenely excessive advertising that alienated Connecticut voters from McMahon.

Know the rich—and let them know you. Candidates for national office must raise hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of dollars. Inevitably, they are beholden to big donors. Charles Schumer, New York’s Democratic senator, ran virtually unopposed and yet raised $16 million by mid-October. He spent $11 million and still had $16 million left (presumably from previous campaigns). Five million of Schumer’s funds came from the financial, insurance, and real-estate industries; $28,000 of it from Goldman Sachs, which spent $1.9 million on a hundred 2010 races, down from $5.9 million in 2008—but hey, times are tough. Is the largesse of Goldman, Citibank, Deutsch Bank, etc., the reason reform legislation didn’t quite close the books on financial shenanigans?

Oblige the rich. The financial floodgates were opened by the Supreme Court’s 5–4 decision in Citizens United, which allowed corporations to contribute directly to candidates. Following an earlier Wisconsin decision allowing 401(c) nonprofits to sponsor issue ads and the failure of Congress to pass corrective legislation, the most abusive and legally dubious practice of the campaign emerged. Anonymous donors, corporate and otherwise, contributed millions for attack ads, mostly targeted at Democratic incumbents. (The IRS has yet to rule on the legality of that maneuver.) The flow of cash and ads followed GOP operative Karl Rove’s promise of anonymity to donors who can write a check and attack without fear of exposure. Case in point: Congressman Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) found himself under siege from “Concerned Taxpayers of America,” which was running TV ads in his district. Who were these concerned taxpayers and what did they want? After a good deal of sleuthing by the Huffington Post, one of the two donors behind “Concerned Taxpayers” was identified. A resident of New York, he is a hedge-fund manager opposed to DeFazio’s proposal to tax the short-term transactions hedge funds favor. Defeating DeFazio in Oregon by misrepresenting his record was an easier shot than opposing his plan in Congress. DeFazio won on November 2. Here’s hoping he holds hearings on taxing hedge funds where he can meet face-to-face the man who spent so much to defeat him. 

Does money matter? If it's not always the difference between victory and defeat, it clearly empowers the rich and allows them to buy our votes. 

Related: What Now? by E. J. Dionne Jr.
Corporate Mischief, by Joseph D. Becker
Cleaning Up the Supreme Court Mess, by E. J. Dionne Jr.

Published in the 2010-11-19 issue: 

Margaret O’Brien Steinfels is a former editor of Commonweal. 

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