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The Scandal of 2010

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Posted on Oct 25, 2010

By E.J. Dionne, Jr.

Imagine an election in a Third World nation where a small number of millionaires and billionaires spent massive sums to push the outcome in their preferred direction. Wouldn’t many people here condescendingly tut-tut such a country’s “poorly developed” sense of democracy and the inadequacy of its political system?

That, of course, is what is going on in our country as you read this. If you travel any place where there is a contested race for the House or Senate, you are bombarded with attack ads, almost all against Democrats, paid for by groups that do not have to reveal where their money comes from.

What we do know from enterprising journalism and the limited disclosure the law requires is that much of this money is donated in large sums from a rather small number of wealthy individuals.

And The New York Times reported last Friday that among the 10 top-spending organizations this year, five are Republican-oriented shadow groups. Another four are the formal party committees for House and Senate candidates. One is a union. 

This is a huge, historic deal, yet many in the media have treated the spending avalanche as a normal political story and arguments about its dangers as partisan Democratic whining.

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Some have even maintained that money doesn’t really matter in elections, which makes you wonder why people who know quite a lot about politics (one thinks of Karl Rove) have spent so much energy organizing these fundraising and advertising efforts.

The outside money should be an issue for Democrats. They ought to be asking, even more forcefully than they have been, what these secret donors expect for their money. You can be sure that the benefactors will not keep their identities hidden from the members of Congress they help elect. Only the voters will be in the dark.

Nonetheless, the partisan dimension should not distract from the larger problem facing American democracy. Secret money is dangerous. Secret money corrupts. Secret money is antithetical to the transparency that democracy requires. And concentrated money, which is what we’re talking about here, buys more influence and access than small contributions.

Candidates have limits on the size of the donations they can raise and must disclose them. They are accountable for the advertisements they put on the air. But the outside groups can say whatever they want without answering for it. Washington Post blogger Greg Sargent has been tireless in pointing out how many of the ads sponsored by these shadowy organizations are based on half-truths or outright lies.

It’s often been said that what the Republican-leaning groups are doing now is no different from what some Democratic-friendly groups have done in the past. There’s actually an important distinction. But first, let me say I didn’t like it when Democrats took a step in this direction in 2004, and was critical when Harold Ickes, one of the party’s seasoned operatives, organized outside money on John Kerry’s behalf.

I called the move “shortsighted,” and said then: “My hunch is that in the long run, the country—and, yes, especially Democrats—will regret opening a new loophole in the campaign money system.” Republicans, I predicted, would “find more than enough rich people to finance groups on the Ickes model” and eventually outspend the Democrats.

But at least the 2004 Democratic money was raised under rules that required disclosure. That’s why Republicans, who now complain about criticisms of their efforts, could mount their relentless attacks on the generosity of George Soros.

By contrast, much of the outside Republican money this year is being raised under a different part of the tax code (and under shamelessly loose Federal Election Commission rules), so the money coming in doesn’t have to be disclosed. We also have the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which vastly increased the ability of corporations to influence elections.

If you still think this outside secret money is just the Democrats’ problem, consider the views of Charles Kolb, president of the Committee for Economic Development, a venerable business group. Kolb, who served in the Reagan administration, thinks all this secret money is bad for both democracy and business because it undermines public confidence that the government and the marketplace are on the level.

“An election is a public good, not a private exchange,” he says. “If I want to buy a car from you, that’s an exchange between you and me.” But elections “are not a private commodity, candidates aren’t private commodities.”

That’s right: Elections are there to be won, not bought.

E.J. Dionne’s e-mail address is ejdionne(at)washpost.com.
   
© 2010, Washington Post Writers Group


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rico, suave's avatar

By rico, suave, October 27, 2010 at 12:52 pm Link to this comment

That’s another fiction perpetrated on us: That there is no quid pro quo, no strings attached to donations. Bullshit. Money talks. Big money talks louder.

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By felicity, October 27, 2010 at 12:30 pm Link to this comment

rico - indeed.  If I donate $5.00 to a candidate and a
corporation (person according to SCOTUS) donates $5
million to the same candidate, which of us will the
candidate ‘hear.’

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rico, suave's avatar

By rico, suave, October 27, 2010 at 9:03 am Link to this comment

This whole money issue causes heartburn for both sides. Everybody uses “outside money” or “secret-source money” whatever the terms mean in the first place. Funny though that outside money is only condemned when it finances attack ads.

The only broad thing I can come up with is for the SCOTUS to forget the moronic notion that “money equals speech”.

Somehow we’ve gotten it into our heads that the right to speak includes the right to be heard/read/seen by as many people as the speaker can afford to reach, and any restriction on the amount he would otherwise spend is viewed as a restriction on his speech.

This is why the rich make all the noise and the poor are invisible. The poor can’t afford to be heard.

How do you change that?

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By felicity, October 26, 2010 at 12:58 pm Link to this comment

Not that we should overlook the results of the
Citizens United SCOTUS decision, but what alarms me
are the attack ads. 

Goebbels, early on, accused Germany’s ethnic and
national minorities (Jews, Poles, French) of trying
to destroy Germany.  We know where that led.  Do we
realize that the attack ads accusing
liberals/Obama/democrats/illegals…of trying to
destroy America may also lead us to a “final
solution?” We’re fast approaching very dangerous
territory and I doubt that many realize it.

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Rigor's avatar

By Rigor, October 26, 2010 at 8:59 am Link to this comment

Hey, Mr. BIG B(utt) - I didn’t see you in Phoenix a
few weeks back when the SEIU bussed a bunch of paid
protesters from cali to pretend to be locals upset at
SB1070…
If you really think unions are smaller now than in
‘72 your dumber than dirt buddy.
And just to set you straight I don’t like ANY of
this liberal-conservative horse-shit - right & wrong
doesn’t have a gray area for anybody’s political
agenda. If you abuse a citizens constitutional rights
in any way you are either a traitor or foreign
subversive = criminal.

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By Dieter, October 26, 2010 at 8:20 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

As usual Mr. Dionne looks in the wrong direction. The scandal of 2010 is Obama’s war in Afghanistan/Pakistan. Why can’t he ever get it right?

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By Inherit The Wind, October 25, 2010 at 7:56 pm Link to this comment

Wassama? You gotta problem with BP and Royal Dutch Shell, and Hyundai and all the Swiss pharmas buying our politicians so they can make law the benefits their donors at the expense of their nation?

You have a problem with treason, selling out your nation to get elected?

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By firefly, October 25, 2010 at 5:22 pm Link to this comment

Democracy for sale!

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PatrickHenry's avatar

By PatrickHenry, October 25, 2010 at 5:10 pm Link to this comment

It’s the same old scandal since Boss Tweed, it just gets larger and more corrupt.

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bonito's avatar

By bonito, October 25, 2010 at 4:54 pm Link to this comment

Voice of Truth, I do not know where you get your
facts from, I have been a Union Member for over 60
years and know that the Union Charter specifically
prohibits using Union Dues for politics.  There is a
committee called COPE which is The Committee on
Political Education, that happens to take
contributions which are completely Voluntary. These
funds are used to educate the Members on whether or
not the candidates running in elections have done
anything worth noting in the past to further the
cause of the working class and/or the middle class to
obtain an adequate Wage to support themselves and
their Families.

If you are by class or circumstance one whom toils to
make the rich man Boss or Owner ever Richer, and
still Badmouths Unions, then you must also be willing
to do the same for your Ancestors, were it not for
the Unions in this country, even the Non-union,
and/or Anti-union people or workers would still be
working for much less then Minimum. 

I have no quarrel with the Non-union and Anti-union
workers in this country that accept PEANUTS for their
wages, after all, they know what they are worth. I am
not an Elephant so therefore refuse that sort of
payment for my Labor.

Any working person who votes for a Republican in the
rich man’s party, actually votes against his or her
own interest, and, before doing so should inquire as
to just what it was that he or she had done to help
the working, and middle classes.

I firmly believe that JESUS CHRIST got it wrong, the
Rich have already inherited the Earth.

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By morristhewise, October 25, 2010 at 3:07 pm Link to this comment

Conservatives, Tea Partier`s, and Holy Rollers believe that their victory in this
coming election will reassert the nations higher values, but the only value that will
be reasserted is the value to survive in the most pleasurable way. All this crap
about higher values is nonsense spoken by hypocrites and believed by idiots.

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By Gerald Sutliff, October 25, 2010 at 2:53 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

One wonders why money is, often times, so vital to a successful election.  It’s ironic that the interests who oppose public funding or even transparency are the ones who get “held-up” by the candidates.

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By voice of truth, October 25, 2010 at 2:50 pm Link to this comment

The AFSCME is, by their own reports, the single largest money spender in this election cycle by a long shot.  And the money they spend isn’t even a voluntary donation, its forced union dues!  And these people’s wages are actually paid by taxpayers, so the Democrats are in effect using public money to finance their campaigns!

This is a fact.  The rest is all hypocrisy.

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Peetawonkus's avatar

By Peetawonkus, October 25, 2010 at 12:55 pm Link to this comment

If the Democrats get their ass handed to them this November it will be their own damn fault. It’s not the staggering amount of Republican/corporate/front group money flowing into lying attack ads, which, as one of the posters here points out, is not illegal. (Though it should be.) It’s just that in a line-up—with some notable and noble exceptions—Democrats can’t be picked apart from Republicans. Let’s call lobbying “contributions” what they are: bribes. And both parties take them. Sure, Republicans are now getting about $10 to every $1 for Democrats. Why? Because Republicans are the official party of the corporations and the rich. (It’s out in the open and don’t bother denying it.) But Democrats have failed to offer a vision to counter the manipulating fear and hate Republicans offer. The best slogan Democrats can up with is “We’re Not The Worst!” When Progressives fight back, Progressive win elections. But the DNC has done everything possible to keep local progressives out of the Democratic Party machinery. Apparently the best candidates Democrats can field are Republican-Lite people like Harry Reid, The Tepid, who can’t even mount an adequate defense against an outright loony. I’ll say this again: all the corporate bribe money in the world won’t win Democrats elections if they have nothing more to offer than a second-hand vision of America.

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By Big B, October 25, 2010 at 11:01 am Link to this comment

Rigor,

Wake the fuck up, it’s not 1972 anymore. The american workforce is less than 10% unionized, their wages are lower, and consequently, so is there level of political influence. The days of Teamsters and the UMW effecting even local elections are over. Well funded conservative think tanks are outspending liberal causes almost 10 to 1.

Yes, the wealthy have always been able to purchase influence in the shadows, but now it’s like Christmas for any and all neo-con causes du-jour.

Ans what of Barry, and the rest of his corporate DINOS? They still think that if they support lower corporate taxes and financial deregulation that big business will see the err of their ways and come crawling over to the dimmo side. Why would they do that, when they can just walk over, hand them a check (smaller than the repugs check of course) and demand they eat a bug in exchange?

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rico, suave's avatar

By rico, suave, October 25, 2010 at 10:54 am Link to this comment

So Dionne isn’t complaining about any illegality, just that the Dems are coming up on the short end of the stick. Show me a list of donors the Dems have turned away for asking to be anonymous.

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Rigor's avatar

By Rigor, October 25, 2010 at 9:43 am Link to this comment

Scandal? This is the way the politicians have operated for decades! Democrat & Republican. The labor unions are the highest dollar contributors to political out comes hands down - and where do they get their money?
Cry about one party’s shadow funding and all you’ll do is shine a light on all of it. Not that this is a bad idea, but don’t try to double standard the problem. Mr. Soetoro (aka obama) spent more than any other campaign in history to “buy” the whitehouse in ‘08, and now lib’s want to whine about conservative funding? Wow…

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By aacme88, October 25, 2010 at 9:10 am Link to this comment

“Kolb, who served in the Reagan administration, thinks all this secret money is bad for both democracy and business because it undermines public confidence that the government and the marketplace are on the level.”

The combination of the economic meltdown caused by the greed and corruption of Wall Street, and the Citizens United decision eliminated any lingering illusion in anyone’s mind that “the government and the marketplace are on the level.”
That Wall Street still doesn’t want regulation and Republicans still don’t want disclosure and transparency just shows that they no longer need to care what anyone thinks, or need their confidence.

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By tedmurphy41, October 25, 2010 at 8:13 am Link to this comment

Hasn’t it always been this way, and more so for prospective candidates(not Democrats) who promoted a more accountable and more democratically elected process in America.

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