A Reporter Crashes the Super PAC Party
Kenneth P. Vogel’s new book is a revealing look at big money politics.
Unlike the courageous branches of journalism like being a war correspondent or resisting a publisher out to decimate the staff, political reporters have it easy. About the worst thing that can happen is missing a press bus in Iowa or sleeping through a group interview with a man about to be tapped for vice president. (Don't ask me about that Time breakfast with Dan Quayle at the 1988 Republican convention).
Kenneth P. Vogel, who stalks the campaign money beat for Politico, is that rare exception. His specialty is being escorted out the doors of pricey hotels by security guards after he attempts to penetrate the Super PAC world that the Roberts Court created.
This becomes a running theme of Vogel's new book, Big Money: 2.5 Billion, One Suspicious Vehicle and a Pimp -- on the Trail of the Ultra-Rich Hijacking American Politics (PublicAffairs, $27.99). The author is booted from the Renaissance Esmeralda Hotel in Rancho Mirage (Page 8), Washington's Mandarin Oriental Hotel (Page 61), a mansion in Charlotte during the Democratic Convention (Page 159) and the Four Seasons Hotel in DC (Page 215). On these occasions -- and many others like it -- the intrepid Vogel must have been tempted to shout, "I've been thrown out of better Super PAC strategy sessions than yours."
Vogel's paparazzi tactics -- coupled with relentless traditional reporting -- have made Big Money the smartest and most revealing book chronicling the Super PAC era. Instead of predictable legal analysis and a mind-numbing march of statistics, Vogel tries to grasp what motivates the wealthy to invest so heavily in Super PACs. And his answers do not fit into the neat ideological cubbyholes of either campaign reformers or believers in the nonsensical, but powerful, doctrine that money equals free speech.
Part of it, as I have written myself, is the lure of the game and limelight. Vogel quotes Foster Friess, who bankrolled Rick Santorum's Super PAC in the 2012 primaries and traveled with the candidate, as gushing, "This is the most attention I've ever gotten since I was seventeen years old and held up my local 7-Eleven store." The holdup line was a joke, but not Friess' wide-eyed amazement at being part of the Santorum entourage: "It was like being with a rock star."
Big Money also smartly dissects how Super PAC impresarios like Karl Rove shake the money tree at breakfasts, dinners and conferences. Rove's pitch, in Vogel's telling, involves three parts: 1). A famous politician or two to stroke the egos of the donors; 2). A Rovian analysis of the upcoming campaign season to make the attendees feel like insiders; and 3). An action plan to convince big givers that the money they give for 30-second TV spots is about to transform America.
But Vogel differs from many armchair analysts in stressing that what prompts mega-donors to write seven-digit checks goes beyond narrow self-interest. There is usually more to the transaction than buying politicians in order to collect chits redeemable in favorable legislation and government regulations. As Vogel puts it, "Among the motivations of these guys...are passion, ego, and in some cases financial interest, though the new big-money politics is no way to boost profits." The metaphor he favors is to liken the Super PAC barons to sports junkies who buy football and baseball teams.
What we are talking about is a 2014 campaign universe dominated by the Super PAC equivalents of George Steinbrenner. Candidates of all ideological stripes and both political parties are buffeted by the whims of bumptious billionaires. When the Super PAC barons in one party disagree, you get the kind of bitter, high-priced infighting that pits the GOP establishment against its Tea Party wing.
But even when you have ideological harmony among big givers -- as is currently the case in the Democratic Party -- you still have de facto censorship of political causes. Money talks these days by taking issues off the table because Super PACs will never embrace candidates running on them. No Democratic Super PAC is likely to fund a candidate notorious for toughness towards Wall Street and scorn for the big banks. Populism and Super PACs simply don't mix. It is telling that the major Super PAC funders on the liberal side of the equation have stayed away from hard-core economic issues. Instead, the favored issues are topics like guns (Michael Bloomberg) and global warming (Tom Steyer).
The same pattern emerges on the right. Libertarian conservatives like hedge-funder Paul Singer are eager to bankroll a Republican Super PAC to boost candidates who support gay marriage. But, as Vogel shrewdly points out, Christian conservatives feel "their issues -- namely, strident opposition to abortion rights and gay marriage -- were being minimized in the conservative movement by deeper-pocketed factions."
The larger point is not the validity of the issues whether it is gun control or rolling back Roe v. Wade. The relevant question in post-Citizens United politics is: Who is making the decisions on which causes a party stresses? And it is not healthy when these choices have been ceded to billionaires and the political consultants who love them.
Big Money highlights a vital but little-understood aspect of the Super PAC era -- it empowers campaign consultants. In the days before Citizens United, candidates and political parties raised the money while the strategists and the image-makers spent it. Now the consultant class, led by pioneers like Rove, recruit Super PAC barons themselves. Under what Vogel calls "the privatizing of politics," parties and candidates are upstaged by arrogant billionaires who think they know everything about elections because they watch Fox News or Morning Joe on MSNBC.
Vogel bravely tackles a topic that is off-limits in polite Washington society -- how much money political consultants make. He notes, through his own statistical analysis, that the five top-grossing political consulting firms received $1.3 billion in payments in 2012. There is no way of knowing from required reports to the Federal Election Commission how much of that money was to cover expenses like purchasing TV time and how much was swag for the consultants themselves.
Instead of throwing up his hands at the lack of comprehensible FEC data, Vogel approaches the problem like an old-fashioned shoe-leather reporter. He begins with a trio of leading young GOP consultants deeply entwined with the Super PAC world in the 2012 campaign. And he discovers (shocking revelation ahead) that they all had "settled into expensive new houses soon after Election Day." Zac Moffatt, for example, who presided over the disaster that was Mitt Romney's digital operation, retained an interest in a digital consulting firm that serviced the campaign. In early 2013, Vogel notes, "Moffatt and his wife, who had not previously owned a home, spent $905,000 on a stately tan brick townhouse in Alexandria's showcase Potomac Yard development."
Moffatt's real-estate karma is nothing compared to the way that Rove has apparently prospered through his pioneering role with Super PACs. Even though Rove denies that he derives any income from his involvement with his Super PAC empire, Vogel reports that this pious claim inspires general hilarity among GOP insiders. More relevantly, Big Money reveals that casino owner Steve Wynn -- who gave more than $10 million to Crossroads GPS -- arranged for Rove to honeymoon in 2012 on the Las Vegas mogul's yacht cruising the Mediterranean.
Big Money is not a policy book, so Vogel should not be faulted for failing to come up with a 17-point action plan for lessening Super PAC dominance over today's politics. But reading Big Money, I was reminded again of the importance of strong rules limiting coordination between Super PACs and the candidates they support.
Maybe if Foster Friess was legally barred from traveling with Rick Santorum and reveling in the rock-star aura, he might not have created a Super PAC for the 2012 primaries. Maybe if Sheldon Adelson could not summon 2012 Republican candidates like vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan to Las Vegas, his funding of Super PACs would have been less heavy-handed. Maybe if would-be 2016 Republicans candidates could not audition for the Koch Brothers, then Super PACs like Americans for Prosperity might not cast as large a shadow over the upcoming GOP race.
One last reform should be enacted while we are at it: Security guards at Big Money gatherings should be instructed to be especially nice to Kenneth Vogel as they escort him to his car.
The views expressed are the author's own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.
Walter Shapiro is an award-winning political columnist who has covered the last nine presidential campaigns. Along the way, he has worked for The Washington Post, Newsweek, Time, Esquire, USA Today and, most recently, Yahoo News. He is also a lecturer in political science at Yale University. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.