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Dems’ defeat: It’s not about new campaign finance loopholes

My buddy Tom Hamburger, who covers the money-in-politics beat for the L.A.

My buddy Tom Hamburger, who covers the money-in-politics beat for the L.A. Times, had a smart, calm piece Monday about the big new money-in-politics wrinkle in this election cycle, namely the ability of corporations to give unlimited sums, in many cases without disclosure.

On the one hand, this is a terrible development. I don’t approve of the Supreme Court rulings that have made it possible. Money is not the same as speech. Corporations are neither people nor citizens. Before those rulings, the U.S. campaign finance laws had already created a system of legalized corruption and the recent rulings make it worse. The commercial breaks on TV are a cesspool of half-truths and irrelevancies and it’s worse still when you can’t tell who to hold accountable for them.

On the other hand, I encourage liberals to keep their shirts on. Personally, I do not believe the new campaign finance loopholes are the fundamental reason that the Dems are getting their buts whipped in this midterm.

That’s one of the things I liked about Tom’s Monday piece. He was measured about the impact of the new money. He said it has enabled the Republicans to put certain races into play that otherwise might not have been. He highlighted the Oberstar-Cravaack race in northern Minnesota.

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“Expanding the playing field” in this way, as it is often called, is not nothing. It forced the Dems to play defense in unexpected places and spread their own national party spending more thinly. And perhaps some of those unexpected targets will lose their seats, but most them will survive.

Of the three ratings publications that I tend to follow, only Charlie Cook calls the Oberstar race a toss-up. Stu Rothenberg and Congressional Quarterly still favor Oberstar to survive. No one suggests Cravaack is favored. On the other hand, Cravaack had apparently begun to make the race competitive before the outside money flowed in.

Yes, the unaccountable “independent group” spending has overwhelmingly favored Repubs. But most political spending is still directly made by the campaigns and the parties under the old rules. As Tom notes (and David Brooks has been making this point repeatedly) the Dems still had an overall spending advantage (or the two sides are roughly even) for the whole campaign cycle. Dems who blame the expected butt-whipping of 2010 on the spending are engaging in denial.

The defeat that Dems are about to suffer has many causes. The party of the president almost always loses seats at the midterm. The Dem majorities had grown so large as to be unsustainable. (That’s because the late Bush and post-Bush revulsion with the Repubs had caused many traditionally Repub seats to be temporarily occupied by Dems.) The Dems have also lost the argument for this cycle on the main principle that separates the two major parties, the big government/small government argument. This campaign is over. The argument will continue.

All of these seem like bigger explanatory factors for the general direction of the 2010 campaign than the latest developments in campaign finance. But those matter too. And, as buddy Hamburger’s story calmly noted, Dems will get to work figuring out how to respond to those developments for the next cycle.