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. 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.

“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.

Comments (12)

  1. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 11/02/2010 - 10:05 am.

    Most political spending may still be made directly by the established parties, but the most virulent attack ads seems to come from the independent (read anonymous and unaccountable) groups.

  2. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 11/02/2010 - 10:54 am.

    Minnesota still prohibits dissemination of false campaign materials and political advertisements. If corporations are going to be treated as persons for purposes of the First Amendment and political speech, they and their owners and managers need to be held strictly accountable for false statements. “Independent” groups especially need to be accountable and those who try to hide behind anonymity while swiftboating decent candidates.

  3. Submitted by John E Iacono on 11/02/2010 - 11:36 am.

    I just have to respond to some of the statements in this EB post:

    >”Money is not the same as speech.”

    Money talks, and if it speaks for the viewpoints of thos with whom one disagrees whose group happens to be a corporation or a union, an Archie Bunker “Stifle, Edith” is not the way to deal with it. I believe the supreme court was right. I would go along with disclosure ONLY if the unions were ALSO required to report EACH individual contributing over $100.00, as must be done for other campaign contributions. I suspect, however, the dems would not like that. Nor would the union members whose dues are involuntarily given to politicians they oppose, as is the case with the teachers union, for example.

    >”Yes, the unaccountable “independent group” spending has overwhelmingly favored Repubs”.

    Not from where I sit watching my TV. what channel do you watch?

    >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.

    But the dems have no objection when the union contributions in cash and in kind are NOT reported in the same way they want opposing contributions to be reported so they can pull a “Target” on them. Strange myopia.

  4. Submitted by Richard Parker on 11/02/2010 - 11:38 am.

    Drifting off the serious topic here, sorry…
    I remember Tom Hamburger, a crackerjack political reporter. When he was still at the Strib I always wished he would team up on a story with Jay Weiner, and if possible also arrange a byline role for page designer Martha Buns.

  5. Submitted by John E Iacono on 11/02/2010 - 11:46 am.

    I do agree, however, that the attack ads, unless they point out a significan ACTUAL flaw in the candidate, serve no purpose other than to make the relief on the day after the election greater.

  6. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 11/02/2010 - 11:47 am.

    When trade labor unions adopt voluntary membership rules, I’ll start demanding accountability from corporate donors.

  7. Submitted by Stephan Flister on 11/02/2010 - 12:04 pm.

    “Dems’ defeat….”

    Over at the Secretary of State’s office they are actually waiting for people to vote, and then they are going to count the votes, and then they will declare winners and losers.

  8. Submitted by Brian Simon on 11/02/2010 - 12:21 pm.

    Eric writes
    “Dems who blame the expected butt-whipping of 2010 on the spending are engaging in denial.”

    Indeed.

    In addition to Eric’s list of reasons why the Dems faced an uphill battle, I’d add the economy: when the economy stinks, the president’s party tends to suffer at the polls.

  9. Submitted by Brian Simon on 11/02/2010 - 12:28 pm.

    John Iacono writes “Money talks”

    I saw someone else make the following point, which is worth discussing: “If money equals speech, speech is not free.”

    True or false?

    It seems to me, if the rebuttal to Eric’s criticism of corporate money is to say “unions do it too,” you’re saying it is true that speech is no longer free, and since one group (unions) enjoys a loophole, the other group (corporations) should get it too.

    Personally, I’d rather see the bill of rights limited to People.

  10. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 11/02/2010 - 03:28 pm.

    When a $100 bill can talk – directly, and in English – then money equals speech. Until that time, it’s the person DONATING the $100 whose voice is being projected, and it’s in the best interests of all of us to know whose voice that might be.

    That’s especially true of corporations, which are, prima facie, sociopathic.

    Labor unions can play the political game, too, of course, but since labor unions represent an increasingly small portion of the electorate (only 12.3 percent of wage and salaried workers in 2009), and are an emaciated shadow of their former politically-powerful selves, hysteria over union contributions doesn’t seem warranted, especially since the same issue (endorsement/support of a candidate I personally oppose) doesn’t seem to be reciprocal. That is, it doesn’t seem to trouble right-leaners fulminating over union contributions, for example, that Target might have contributed money to organizations supporting the election of Tom Emmer as Governor, even though it seems at least possible that one or two Target employees do not personally support Mr. Emmer’s campaign.

    It cuts both ways, folks.

    As soon as we get a law ensuring that campaigns are financed through tax dollars, thus limiting how much each candidate can spend, I’ll be willing to make union political contributions beyond the pale, because corporate and wealthy individual contributions will also be beyond the pale. I’m guessing some will immediately argue that this would somehow be “unfair” to corporations and the wealthy, an argument that merely illustrates the degree to which oligarchy has already taken over the process.

    Of the first 8 commentators, I’m in line with Brian (#8). Democrats have done a terrible job of telling the public what they’ve accomplished (Eric noted this in a previous piece where, among other things, most people believe their taxes have gone up since Obama took office, when in fact it’s the reverse), the party in power almost always loses seats at the midterm point, and when the economy is in the toilet, it doesn’t matter to the electorate who’s actually responsible – they’ll take their frustrations out on the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and his political associates. In addition, the main point of the political argument about “small” vs. “effective” government has been far more effectively communicated by Republican PR than Democratic PR.

    And with that in mind, if I never see another campaign ad on TV, I’ll be very surprised, but very happy. It’s not so much that they’re mean-spirited lies for the most part – mean-spirited lies have been part of American political campaigns since the very first American political campaigns – but that TV makes them ubiquitous and inescapable.

  11. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 11/02/2010 - 08:02 pm.

    You’re right to point out that large amounts of spending won’t get a particular candidate in office, but wrong to conclude that spending has little effect on politics. Spending by interest groups is far more effective in defining the public’s knowledge of certain issues and in defining the debate in which candidates must participate.

    But if the Democrats get hammered, it will not be because of the judicial activism of a conservative Supreme Court. It will be because they have done too few things that voters admire, and too many they do not like.

  12. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 11/03/2010 - 09:59 am.

    It may be true that the current anonymous spending on attack ads is not the only or main influence on yesterday’s election. (The above complaints about unions seem a little silly, since unions endorse very publicly and tell others why. And no way can unions match the money pouring out of the national Chamber and other groups.)

    BUT we must not forget that the Tea Party and all its anger and distrust and fear came about in large part because rich corporatists like the Koch brothers and propagandists like Richard Armey deliberately fostered it in their use of media (Fox, Beck et al) and homey/folksy “just like you” politicians like Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann.

    Great job, guys.

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