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The Messiness That Comes with Democracy

Campaign reform is inextricably tied to other maladies that afflict 2013 politics.

October 10, 2013

In late Septem­ber­—as tempers frayed on the Senate floor over the timing of cloture votes on the govern­ment shut­down—­main­stream Tennessee Repub­lican Bob Corker blamed the delay on Tea Party firebrand Ted Cruz and his right-wing allies play­ing to the cameras. As an exas­per­ated Corker put it, “I am under­stand­ing the reason we are wait­ing is the senat­ors have sent out press releases and emails, and they want every­one to be able to watch.”

Cork­er’s unfiltered comments were about as close as you ever get on the Senate floor to Deep Throat’s Water­gate dictum: “Follow the money.”

The emails that triggered Cork­er’s ire were, in part, the fund-rais­ing appeals sent out by Tea Party groups herald­ing Cruz’s 21-hour burst of Senate floor logor­rhea protest­ing Obama­care. For example, the Senate Conser­vat­ives Fund, a PAC bitterly opposed to the GOP estab­lish­ment, urged support­ers “to put pres­sure on waver­ing Repub­lic­ans, please donate $5 or more to the Senate Conser­vat­ives Fund today.”

An under-repor­ted story during the current days of dysfunc­tion in Wash­ing­ton has been the degree to which the Tea Party move­ment has developed its own finan­cial base outside the Cham­ber of Commerce and similar pro-Repub­lican busi­ness groups. As Timothy P. Carney smartly wrote in the conser­vat­ive Wash­ing­ton Exam­iner, “If not from lobby­ists and big busi­nesses, where are these Tea Party groups getting their money? Mostly from small-busi­ness owners and wealthy retir­ees.”

Part of this money comes from Super PACs like Club for Growth and the lattice­work of right-wing groups (many of them funded by the Koch Broth­ers) that have flour­ished amid the lax regu­lat­ory climate follow­ing Citizens United. But, a signi­fic­ant frac­tion comes from sincere small donors, dispatch­ing online credit card payments of $5 and $50, as they are aroused by tele­vi­sion stunts like Ted Cruz’s don’t-stop-talk­ing-until-tomor­row mara­thon. This was a path blazed by Michelle Bach­mann, who turned conser­vat­ive fero­city and non-stop cable TV appear­ances into one of the most formid­able online fund­ing machines in Congress.  

At the moment, there is abso­lutely no way of determ­in­ing how much money in small dona­tions has been raised by the recent polit­ical pyro­tech­nics surround­ing the govern­ment shut­down in Wash­ing­ton. The reason (and this should appeal to fans of novel­ist Joseph Heller): We don’t know how much polit­ical money was raised by the govern­ment shut­down because the Federal Elec­tion Commis­sion has no one work­ing other than the commis­sion­ers because of the govern­ment shut­down.

Dollar figures aside, there is an under­ly­ing issue that should give campaign reformers pause – small online polit­ical donors can encour­age irre­spons­ible beha­vior in Wash­ing­ton. That was what Corker was hint­ing at when he noted that Cruz’s timing on the Senate floor was designed to maxim­ize his national tele­vi­sion audi­ence.

Ever since Richard Viguerie mastered the art of conser­vat­ive direct-mail fund-rais­ing in the 1970s, it has been possible to support right-wing candid­ates and causes with grass­roots donors. The same has been equally true on the liberal side. But direct mail is expens­ive (post­age, paper and mail­ing lists) and slow, which always limited its abil­ity to create a roar­ing bonfire from the sparks from short-term polit­ical events.

More than Face­book, more than Twit­ter, online fund-rais­ing repres­ents the most import­ant tech­no­lo­gical change in 21st century polit­ics. The half-forgot­ten pion­eer was Demo­cratic pres­id­en­tial long-shot Howard Dean, who upen­ded the verit­ies of campaign finance by rais­ing $7.6 million (half over the Inter­net) during the second quarter of 2003.

For an all too brief moment, campaign reformers could, if they squin­ted hard enough, see unicorns frol­ick­ing on the Capitol grounds. The 2002 ban on soft-money finan­cing in the McCain-Fein­gold legis­la­tion combined with the birth of small-donor Inter­net fund-rais­ing meant that maybe, just maybe, special interests could be consigned to the side­lines of polit­ics.

Okay, it is cruel to dwell on those dashed dreams.

But through it all, campaign reformers have always had a soft spot for small donors, the passion­ate partis­ans motiv­ated by convic­tion rather than self-interest. That world­view was reflec­ted in the post-Water­gate 1974 campaigns reforms that created (a now mostly aban­doned) system of federal match­ing payments to pres­id­en­tial primary candid­ates for contri­bu­tions of $250 or less. New York City, to cite one exem­plary local program, matches by sixfold dona­tions of $175 or less.

On a federal level, the surface logic is unas­sail­able. A $100-donor to a congres­sional campaign will never have the clout to convince a legis­lator to insert a special-interest provi­sion into a tax bill. Writ­ing a $250 check to a pres­id­en­tial candid­ate will not buy an ambas­sad­or­ship or a seat on a Commerce Depart­ment trade mission.  

That, of course, remains true. But the current crisis in Wash­ing­ton reminds us that special interests look­ing out for their own finan­cial well-being are not the groups cheer­ing on the govern­ment shut­down or (yikes!) default­ing on the national debt. In fact, as Tom Hamburger and Matea Gold repor­ted in the Wash­ing­ton Post, old-line GOP fund-raisers and bund­lers are appalled at the scorched-earth tactics of the House Repub­lic­ans.

My point is not to propose thank-you parades for special interests that only want a small handout from the Treas­ury rather than to bring down the govern­ment out of misplaced ideo­lo­gical zeal. Nor is it to rail against the merits of small donors during a week in which the Supreme Court has heard oral argu­ments in case that could discard over­all contri­bu­tion limits in federal elec­tions.

But as a journ­al­ist who has been writ­ing and think­ing about campaign reform for four decades, I know all too well what it is like to be arraigned under the law of unin­ten­ded consequences. And this is a week to remem­ber that small donors can be a source of inad­vert­ent mischief in polit­ics as easily as they can repres­ent a model of citizen parti­cip­a­tion.

Campaign reform is inex­tric­ably tied to the other malad­ies that afflict 2013 polit­ics. If voters on both the right and the left choose to live in an inform­a­tion cocoon – only encoun­ter­ing news they agree with from the likes of Fox News and MSNBC – then tinker­ing with the fund-rais­ing laws will prob­ably accom­plish little. If vitriol and vitu­per­a­tion become the stand­ard for polit­ical debate, then uphold­ing the current contri­bu­tion limits will prob­ably accom­plish little. If most voters have little appre­ci­ation for the complex­it­ies of govern­ing, than even someday over­turn­ing Citizens United will prob­ably accom­plish little.

Maybe the current break­down in Wash­ing­ton is merely an egre­gious example of the messi­ness that comes with demo­cracy. But far more alarm­ing is the diagnosis that dates back to Walt Kelly’s Pogo: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

(Photo: Think­stock)

Walter Shapiro, who has covered the last nine pres­id­en­tial elec­tions, is a colum­nist for Yahoo News. He teaches a polit­ical science seminar on the news media and the 2012 campaign at Yale. And he is work­ing on a book about his con-man great uncle who cheated Hitler.

The views expressed are his own and not those of the Bren­nan Center for Justice.