Mike Littwin: So much money, so little speech
September 4, 2014
This may be the year in which we finally say enough is enough. (Actually, it won’t be. But if you buy the premise, you buy the bit.)
This may be the year campaign ads on TV finally hit the saturation point and actually become either a) white noise or b) the TV equivalent of Internet popup ads. (This might happen, but it won’t matter. They’ll keep coming, regardless.)
This may be the year when a few political pros leak the news that, in the end, all the money spent on ads was basically a non-factor. (Some studies suggest this could be at least somewhat true, but hardly true enough that anyone can afford to disarm unilaterally.)
This may be the year…
What am I saying? This won’t be the year. It’ll be like every other year, except worse — much, much worse.
Thanks to the Supreme Court, we have stripped away all the pretenses about money and politics. Money is speech. Speech is money. PACs have evolved (devolved?) into super PACs, and super PAC dark money has become the black hole of politics. And, whether or not you think this is what the Constitution requires, is there anyone out there who really thinks we’re better off for it?
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The story goes something like this: Campaign reform gives way to Citizens United, and Citizens United is made even worse by McCutcheon. And in the new Gilded Age — wherein millionaires are no longer rich and even billionaires come cheap — we can’t even put together a decent populist party. In fact, the real watershed moment in campaign finance may have come during the 2008 presidential race when Barack Obama turned down federal matching funds and Democrats, in the process, turned their backs on good-government reform.
It’s no wonder that running against the outsize influence of the Koch brothers — together worth about $100 billion — isn’t a cinch for Democrats. It isn’t as if they haven’t tried, though. They’ve tried ads. Harry Reid rips them every other day.
There was the recent Huffington Post story about Cory Gardner and other Republican Senate candidates attending a secret Koch Brothers retreat, in which Mitch McConnell was taped saying to “Charles and David … I don’t know where we’d be without you.” If that was supposed to be a scandal, let’s just say it didn’t exactly scare anyone off.
In fact, a bunch of Republican would-be presidential candidates spent their Labor Day weekend — yes, Labor Day weekend — at a Dallas summit for Americans for Prosperity, the Koch Brothers’ political arm. Rand Paul was there and Rick Perry was there and Mike Pence and Ted Cruz and Ben Carson. It wasn’t exactly a secret. Cruz made headlines there saying that we should bomb ISIS “back to the Stone Age.”
Meanwhile, the Kochs raised something like $400 million for the 2012 election, using what the Washington Post described as “a far-reaching operation of unrivaled complexity, built around a maze of groups that cloaks its donors” from view. They may raise as much as $300 million for this midterm election and maybe half a billion for 2016.
All the polls show that voters think big money corrupts politics, but they may not know the half of it. It’s not that politicians are necessarily crooks — the great majority are not — but that they spend so much of their time raising money that they might as well be. They become basically influence peddlers. The least that we can demand — but don’t seem to care enough to insist — is that they disclose the people trying to buy the influence.
Of course, there are billionaires for both parties. Mark Udall has climate-change activist Tom Steyer, who said he is spending $50 million on Senate races. This is what the competition for money means in real terms: According to a report by Colorado Public Radio, TV political ad buys in Colorado had reached $49.8 million by Aug. 22. And $38 million — more than three dollars out of four — had arrived courtesy of outside money.
CPR did the math for us. That’s the equivalent of more than 58,000 30-second spots, or — and I like this little statistic — 20 days of nonstop TV viewing. It’s like watching the “Simpsons” marathon, only with slightly fewer laughs.
Here’s what really bothers me. Let’s take the Udall-Gardner race. If money were really speech, we might actually have a race worth talking about, one between two politicians with starkly different views. I know we’d have more than attack ads on personhood and Obamacare.
There might be real debates about immigration, about the limits of government, about the limits of American power, about tax reform, about entitlement reform, about the role of science in making policy, about the impact of climate change or if there is one, about access to abortion, about voter ID, about equal pay, about inequality, about guns and about dozens of other issues.
There will be a few debates, but most people won’t see them. And most questions will remain unasked and unanswered. The ironic thing is that big money in politics allows politicians to narrow the conversation instead of expanding it. It allows them to control the message instead of explaining it. It means making 30-second TV ads instead of having to make a defensible argument.