Sometimes the way a politician says something is more interesting than what he or she actually says. President Obama’s State of the Union speech offered a perfect example. As he discussed campaign finance, Obama’s poker face slipped. Looking out across the jam-packed House chamber, he spoke: “[W]e need to work together to find a real solution, because it’s a problem. And most of you don’t like raising money.”
Fairly standard issue rhetoric so far. Not standard issue: the look of disgust that passed over his face when he added: “I know. I’ve done it.”
You get the feeling that just thinking about raising money makes Obama want to take a shower.
Obama’s flicker of feeling offers a fascinating glimpse into the world of campaign fundraising. After all it’s fairly odd that the man who is arguably the most successful political fundraiser in American history so clearly loathes it. It’s as if Lou Gehrig announced he hated baseball.
So Obama’s brief discussion of money in politics adds a layer of complexity to the formulaic way we usually consider this world.
Much of the campaign finance discussion tends to follow a simplistic narrative: big moneyed donor gives cash; politician votes his way. Then we dive into variations on the theme or offer counter-narratives. For example, here’s a counter-narrative: The donor gave money because the politician already agreed with him or her, not the other way around.
Next we map specific politician or donor stories against this framework. Former Virginia Gov.Bob McDonnell, whose appeal was accepted by the Supreme Court last week, is a variation on a theme. Yes, he took lots of money from a donor, and he provided favors, not votes, in turn. But were those favors significant enough to rise to the level of outright corruption? Or consider Sen. Bernie Sanders’ salvo against Hilary Clinton: she takes money from Wall Street so she must be in their pocket. But, she points out, she represented New York so it’s only natural that her constituents, who she served well, would donate to her.
It’s all fairly cookie cutter. But the world of campaign finance is more convoluted. It is peopled by a complex cast of politicians who fall into three main character types.
First, there are the self-loathers. The President was right. Most members of Congress hate raising money. They are the dismayed and disgusted participants in the money and politics chain. (Incidentally, many donors feel the same way.)
Then there are the game-playing technicians. These are the politicians who have achieved a Zen-like level of detachment. They have a daily punch list that goes something like this: deal with today’s votes; attend committee hearings; meet with constituents; review legislative priorities; raise money. They raise the money because that’s the job.
I know one Senator who has a daily call sheet. At the beginning and end of each day, he calls his top staffers one after another for updates. To the state director: what’s our casework count and have we cleared the hot cases? To the legislative director: what are the votes tomorrow and have we dropped that bill yet? To the fundraiser: what was our raise today and are we on target for the month? It’s all just business. He knows the rules of the game. He follows them. The staffers live in fear.
Finally, there are the Dr. Fausts. These are the politicians like one former congressman, who, when asked what he missed most about his old job, replied: “Cold calling for cash.” Former Rep. Aaron Schock, he of the Downton Abbey-style office renovation, and McDonnell belong to this camp. There’s more than a whiff of desperation, as they anxiously hold their hands out for a taste of the good life. People like them often end up indicted.
All of these politicians are players in a game most of them don’t like and that they don’t know how to exit. The irony, of course, is that they created the game and its rules. And now they feel trapped, like a hamster in a Habitrail.
That brings us back to what Obama actually said, not how he said it. It was about as bland and brief as could be. He just punched the campaign finance ticket in his speech. A look of disgust may have crossed his face, but his words were really ones of despair. He knows, as does every person in the room where he spoke, that Congress will not “work together” to address the problem.
But then Obama concluded his discussion of campaign finance with words that really do matter:
What I’m suggesting is hard. It’s a lot easier to be cynical; to accept that change is not possible, and politics is hopeless…. But if we give up now, then we forsake a better future.…
We can’t afford to go down that path. It won’t deliver the economy we want. It will not produce the security we want. But most of all, it contradicts everything that makes us the envy of the world.
So, my fellow Americans, whatever you may believe, whether you prefer one party or no party, whether you supported my agenda or fought as hard as you could against it—our collective futures depends on your willingness to uphold your duties as a citizen. To vote. To speak out. To stand up for others, especially the weak, especially the vulnerable, knowing that each of us is only here because somebody, somewhere, stood up for us.
The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.