Hot on HuffPost:

See More Stories

The Campaign Money Trap: Reformers Become Flip-Floppers When Victory Is in Sight

4 years ago
  0 Comments Say Something  »
Text Size
Railing about money in politics -- too much, too secret, too influential -- is a surefire way for politicians to signal that they are high-minded reformers. But it's also a pretty good way to earn the tag of hypocrite or flip-flopper.
What is it about the siren song of campaign finance reform? It's like entrapment. People keep embracing ideas they later abandon when the glimmer of victory is in sight, and all it's going to take to get there is more money.
In the last presidential election, candidate Barack Obama said he would "aggressively pursue" an agreement to take public financing with a general election opponent. He later opted out of the public system, which gives each candidate a set amount of money, after making no real effort to work out an arrangement with Republican nominee John McCain.
Obama said he was concerned about the GOP spending advantage among flush party committees and outside groups. But why wouldn't he turn down $84 million in federal money? He was raising far more on his own. McCain took the public money, and why wouldn't he? He didn't have a prayer of matching Obama's haul, and he could count on outside backup. But his critique of Obama (disturbing reversal, he broke his word) rang a bit hollow, since McCain himself had tried to get out of the public system in the primaries when he thought he'd do better on his own.
This year, in the first election since the Supreme Court gave corporations and unions the unfettered right to spend money on campaigns, we have seen high-ranking Republicans such as Sen. Mitch McConnell and Rep. John Boehner stop talking about transparency and the merits of sunlight as a disinfectant. Instead their allies have set up new organizations, nicknamed super PACs, that can accept and spend unlimited contributions without disclosing their donors.
Disclosure once was the GOP counterargument to calls for caps on giving and spending. But it turns out that disclosure is as inconvenient as limits on campaign cash. In fact it would be limiting in itself. What business wants customers to know which side it's on? If there's going to be public scrutiny, better not to get involved.
"Certainly there are some donations that would not have been made had there been a requirement to disclose the donors," Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks money in politics, said in an interview. "Politics isn't good for business. They don't want their consumer brand to be interpreted as partisan."
Look what happened to Target when it contributed $150,000 to a Minnesota business group that had financed ads promoting Republican Tom Emmer. Hint: He's a gubernatorial candidate opposed to gay marriage and other gay rights. If you guessed a boycott led by MoveOn, you guessed right.
So far, the nonpartisan Sunlight Foundation estimates that nearly $100 million in what it calls "dark money" is swirling through scores of races. That's about half of all the money so far from outside groups, and most of it is going to Republicans.
The foundation, an advocate for government transparency, says Republican-leaning super PACs and other independent groups are outspending those allied with Democrats by nearly $41 million. The Campaign Finance Institute at George Washington University puts the disparity at $63.5 million, in the context of an overall 73 percent rise in spending since 2008 by independent outside groups. And the election isn't here yet.
Democrats tried to pass a disclosure bill this year, but -- shocker -- ran into near-solid GOP opposition. So now they've turned the new secrecy into a political weapon. Typical are a cable ad this week that tars Republicans as "corporate buddies" and e-mails using the secrecy theme to -- another shocker -- raise money.

There's no more paradoxical issue than money in politics. It often illuminates naked ambition and single-minded determination to win. And yet it has generated some of the highest profile, most idealistic, most bipartisan moments of the past 15 years.
In 1995, President Bill Clinton and House Speaker Newt Gingrich held a joint town hall in Claremont, N.H. The headline was their handshake agreement to form a blue ribbon commission on lobbying and campaign finance reform. Four years later, presidential candidates McCain and Democrat Bill Bradley returned to Claremont to promote reforms that included a ban on "soft money" (unlimited contributions to parties that were a way to circumvent caps on direct donations to candidates). In 2002, Congress passed the bipartisan McCain-Feingold Act that regulated how, when and how much political money could be spent.
Since then, we've seen reversals by politicians and, above all, the Supreme Court. Early this year, in its decision in the Citizens United case, the Supreme Court gave unions and corporations free rein to spend. The ruling was widely viewed as gutting McCain-Feingold or, at the very least, as retired Justice Sandra Day O'Connor put it, problematic.
In a one-paragraph statement, McCain said he was disappointed but noted the law's ban on soft money remained in place. Yet the court had just opened up a whole new world of unlimited donations!

That's only one way in which McCain's reform drive was thankless. He infuriated many conservatives, not to mention interest groups of all ideological stripes, who saw his prescriptions as infringements on their free speech rights. Even now, he's paying. This week, Democrats filed a complaint accusing McCain of violating his own namesake campaign law. His campaign dismissed it as a frivolous (and false) stunt.
One thing you can say about McCain, he is a survivor. He spent what he needed to -- $21 million, in the end -- to crush a challenge from Tea Party favorite J.D. Hayworth in the Arizona Senate primary. Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold may not be so lucky. He is in the fight of his political life this year against Tea Party candidate Ron Johnson. Moderate Rep. Mike Castle voted with House Democrats on several issues and was one of two GOP sponsors of the disclosure bill. He lost the Delaware Senate primary to Tea Party pick Christine O'Donnell last month.
The secrecy is providing some job security for investigative reporters, who are trying to follow the money. But that's no substitute for the kind of systematic, mandatory disclosure that Krumholz and other watchdogs rely on to show us what's going on in our political system.
Krumholz said some groups are going on offense against disclosure and there is a "really frightening" hostility towards it. Her hopes lie with a citizens revolt. Otherwise, she said, "this could be the beginning of a very difficult era for transparency and political finance."
Bob Edgar, president of the government accountability group Common Cause, sounded even more apocalyptic about the trend toward non-disclosure. "Democracy's not going to survive if it becomes a secret society where only the wealthy corporations and those with money control the outcome of public policy," he said in an interview.
Edgar gives Obama a temporary pass on the public financing flip-flop, saying he rejected the system because it was broken. "He did pledge to fix it and we're going to hold him accountable for that promise," he said of Obama. Edgar wants the president to hold a White House conference on the subject in January, and Congress to pass a revised public financing system for presidential races in April. It should have realistic dollar amounts and timetables, he said, and somehow block outside money or outside contributions over a certain amount.
A former congressman elected with the 1974 class of "Watergate babies" who helped drive campaign reforms through Congress, Edgar did not discuss the relative realism of his expectations for 2011. I'd say they are about as realistic as the odds of a near-term citizens revolt over secrecy. Will it take 30 years and another campaign cash scandal on the order of Watergate to jolt us onto a better path? I hope not.

Follow Jill Lawrence on Facebook and Twitter
Outbrain - The Most Trusted Content Discovery Platform

Get Your Content Discovered.

Promote your content on premium websites

Learn More ›

Outbrain Amplify:
Get your content discovered

Your content will be promoted on the web's largest and most respected media properties, including, Slate and ESPN. We make sure it's seen precisely when people will find it most interesting.

Learn More

Outbrain Engage: The solution for a modern publisher

Outbrain Engage is a full stack software solution that empowers an entire media organization to more effectively manage its online content and programming experience.

Learn More

The world's largest content discovery platform

We bring together premium publishers and marketers of all sizes (including many of the world's leading brands) into the world's largest and most vibrant content marketplace. Learn more about Outbrain ›

561 Million

The global audience reached by Outbrain each month*

190 Billion

The total recommendations we serve consumers monthly


Of the world’s leading brands use Outbrain

* Audience reach according to comScore, September 2014. Leading brands via Ad Age DataCenter / Kantar Media, 2014.

Andy Blau
We selected Outbrain not only because the revenues were higher than others, but because its engine drives better recommendations than others.
Andy Blau
Senior Vice President, Group General Manager
Time Inc.
Dan Horowitz
It's less about buying traffic than it is about reaching the right people with relevant headlines to get them to your content.
Dan Horowitz
EVP and Senior Partner
Fleishman-Hillard Digital
Katrina Craigwell
Our goal is always to deliver content that adds value to the conversations being held by the end user. Outbrain allows us to do just that.
Katrina Craigwell
Global Manager of Digital Marketing
Bailey Foote
The fact that we’re able to drive these kinds of transactions with consumers at scale and with increasing efficiency has made Outbrain paramount to our marketing strategy.
Bailey Foote
E-commerce Manager
The Line
Neal Moore
You cannot leave it to chance that someone will find and engage with your content. Outbrain can put your content in the midst of the world’s most prestigious publications.
Neal Moore
Zach Zavos
Having links to our content appearing directly on premium publisher sites helped us establish our brand.
Zach Zavos
Conversant Media
Mike Brito
Outbrain is one of those [critical] components helping us deliver the right messages to the right contingent at massive scale and in real time to counter a crisis.
Mike Brito
Group Director

A global footprint of service

We operate offices in 11 global territories and we partner with publishers and marketers in over 55 countries, including the U.S., UK, France, Brazil, India and Japan. Come join us ›

Our New Approach to Comments

In an effort to encourage the same level of civil dialogue among Politics Daily’s readers that we expect of our writers – a “civilogue,” to use the term coined by PD’s Jeffrey Weiss – we are requiring commenters to use their AOL or AIM screen names to submit a comment, and we are reading all comments before publishing them. Personal attacks (on writers, other readers, Nancy Pelosi, George W. Bush, or anyone at all) and comments that are not productive additions to the conversation will not be published, period, to make room for a discussion among those with ideas to kick around. Please read our Help and Feedback section for more info.

Add a Comment

*0 / 3000 Character Maximum Comment Moderation Enabled. Your comment will appear after it is cleared by an editor.


Filter by:

Just to get this off my chest..............I look at those cushy chairs in Congress, and wonder why the taxpayers had to pay a half million dollars for them. The men and women who are assigned those seats are rarely in them, and when they are, they often fall asleep. Give them some good, hard, wooden kitchen chairs to sit on when they are SUPPOSED to be in session, and maybe more work will get done in a shorter period of time.

October 22 2010 at 2:27 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

Boy its just great now that corporations and billionaress can buy candidates and hjust think the candidate doesnt evan have to disclose what corporation or billionare he/she owes his vote to should he/she get elected.Strange how all the tea party candidates have who knows what corpoation or what billionare spending millions to get them elected Youed think tea party peapple would wonder why their candidates are so close to corporations and billionares

October 22 2010 at 12:21 PM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply

People dont really care about where the money came from or how men like Rangle and a few others cheat on paying taxes. People still vote him back into office.

October 22 2010 at 11:42 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

I say away with campaign money, or a limit of $2500 per gift. I bet anyone we would have more honest and true law makers. AWAY with the buying of votes and power. LET the people VOTE , not the corporations

October 22 2010 at 8:52 AM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply

" The secrecy is providing some job security for investigative reporters." Thats funny, they should be well rested after following Obama for two years, just in time to investigate those evil conservatives. The investigative reporters produced a piece of paper with no data on it that confirms, denies or proves in any substantive way Obama's citizenship, while they still can't find a doctor, dead or alive, a nurse, a hospital admission form, THE HOSPITAL! OR ANY OTHER WITNESS, EXCEPT A STATEMENT FROM HIS GRANDMOTHER WHOM WITNESSED HIS BIRTH IN KENYA, the kenyan ambassador saying he was born there and it is common knowledge. Now we have a virtual dome of silence on Fox news moderators on the issue with threat of dismissal if they bring up his legitamacy to be POTUS. Investigative reporters my a$$.

October 22 2010 at 2:43 AM Report abuse -4 rate up rate down Reply

" The secrecy is providing some job security for investigative reporters." Thats funny, they should be well rested after following Obama for two years, just in time to investigate those evil conservatives. The investigative reporters produced a piece of paper with no data on it that confirms, denies or proves in any substantive way Obama's citizenship, while they still can't find a doctor, dead or alive, a nurse, a hospital admission form, THE HOSPITAL! OR ANY OTHER WITNESS, EXCEPT

October 22 2010 at 2:40 AM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply

Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold may not be so lucky. He is in the fight of his political life this year against Tea Party candidate Ron Johnson You mean the Russ who has out spent his republican opponent 19-14 million.....Ya but McCain is the hypocrite......They become flip floppers when defeat is in sight too,Jill And as for the dark would be worth commenting on if even Dems were agreeing with you...but even they are laughing at that one and I await your report on all that Obama money in 08....Gee I wonder where it all came from...

October 21 2010 at 11:23 PM Report abuse +5 rate up rate down Reply
3 replies to greatqb44's comment


View All »

Discover inspiring videos on TEDWomen where people are reshaping our future with ideas.

View the Video »

Follow Politics Daily

Politics Home Page : Roll Call