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.”
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.