June 23, 2008—Barack Obama’s decision to opt out of federal campaign financing has riled newspaper editorialists, TV pundits and even some progressives who view regulating “money in politics” as the silver bullet to kill the special-interest domination of Washington.
But the fury over Obama’s choice to rely on his Internet-based small donors – rather than take nearly $85 million in federal funding – misses a difficult truth that may be especially heretical on the Left: campaign-finance reform has been, by and large, a failure.
This reality comes clear if one asks the simple question: Is the U.S. government more in the pocket of special interests today than it was in the mid-1970s when this reform movement gained traction after the Watergate scandal? It’s hard to reach an answer other than that today is worse.
Indeed, since Ronald Reagan became President in 1981, the federal government has operated in the interest of corporations and the well-to-do with a stunning consistency. Even when a Democrat (Bill Clinton) gained the White House in 1993, he did so as a pro-corporate centrist beholden to the Democratic Leadership Council.
I even would argue that the Left’s obsession with campaign-finance reform helped pave the way for the two terms of George W. Bush, whose administration has marked the apex of government-to-corporate favoritism.
That's because the great fallacy of campaign-finance reform has turned out to be that it only addresses money in the narrow political process, i.e. contributions to candidates and parties. It ignores the massive infusion of political money that has gone into the right-wing media.
The Right’s media powerhouse, in turn, has given conservatives enormous influence over setting the national political agenda, especially since the timid mainstream corporate press tends to follow the themes put in play by Fox and other right-wing outlets.
Think back on Campaign 2000 when Al Gore was pummeled by the right-wing news media with the help of a mainstream press determined to shake its old “liberal bias” label by piling on Gore.
Made-up quotes, like “I invented the Internet,” were put into Gore’s mouth; fabricated scandals, such as claims that he sold nuclear secrets to China, were thrown against him; ridicule about his clothing and personality were heaped on him.
Meanwhile, Bush was treated with relative kid gloves, amid the widespread media expectation that his election would “put the adults back in charge” – respected old hands like Dick Cheney and Colin Powell. [For details, see our book, Neck Deep.]
So, even as campaign-finance reform sought a rough parity between the money available to candidates Gore and Bush, there existed a great disparity in the investments that the American Right had made in media compared to the American Left.
In effect, the Right’s lavish investment in media over the past three decades – building a giant, vertically integrated media apparatus reaching from newspapers, magazines and book publishing to talk radio, TV networks and the Internet – has represented the greatest infusion of unregulated spending on politics in American history.
Conservative foundations, like Olin and Scaife, and wealthy right-wingers, such as Sun Myung Moon and Rupert Murdoch, have poured billions and billions of dollars into this media infrastructure in a conscious strategy to shift American politics rightward.
Meanwhile, American progressives find themselves with almost no media infrastructure to speak of: essentially, a few under-funded magazines, Internet bloggers and some struggling talk radio operations, like Air America.
As this imbalance took shape, progressive foundations and well-heeled liberals set as their priority a disproportionate investment in campaign-finance reform.
So, while the Left spent its money trying to regulate political finances, the Right expanded the political playing field by building an ideological media, a year-in/year-out, 24/7/365 operation that has given birth to the “permanent campaign” of endless attack politics.
The Democrats and progressive can wring their hands over this development, but it has given the Republicans and conservatives a huge advantage. The Right's only vulnerability has been a tendency to overreach.
Still, even after President Bush’s first-term power grabs and deceptions had alarmed many Americans, his supportive right-wing media gave him a big edge over his Democratic rival, Sen. John Kerry, in Campaign 2004.
In summer 2004, while Kerry was hamstrung by campaign spending limits, a pro-Bush attack group, the Swiftboat Veterans for Truth, smeared Kerry over his Vietnam War record – devastating themes that were amplified not only by Fox News and right-wing talk radio but which echoed through CNN and other mainstream outlets.
In other words, progressive-backed campaign-finance reforms effectively held Kerry down while a pro-Bush attack group and the right-wing media beat him up, aided further by elements of the mainstream media, always trying to shake the “liberal bias” canard.
Another unintended consequence of campaign-finance reform has been the narrowing of the American political battlefield.
Since campaigns must husband their limited money, they tend to spend it almost exclusively in about 18 “battleground states.” If you live in the other 32 states, you hardly know that a presidential campaign is underway; your vote is essentially ceded to one party or the other.
So, this is the backdrop of Obama’s decision to forego federal spending limits and to count instead on his 1.5 million donors, mostly small contributors giving via the Internet. He hopes to have the money to react against negative assaults, which he has already faced in nearly unprecedented numbers, and to make his case to a broader public.
Seeking a campaign war-chest possibly three times the amount that otherwise would be available, Obama is advocating a 50-state campaign strategy that promises to bring the fight to places that are traditionally ignored in the general election.
While Obama’s opting out of the campaign-finance system has upset many editorialists and reformers, perhaps they should look at the internal contradictions of their own policies as the reason for their failure.
After three decades, the bottom line is that the Left’s concentration on this reform movement has not only failed to separate U.S. politics from special interests but – because of the Left’s disproportionate spending on this priority – may have helped weld politicians and corporations more tightly together.
Progressive foundations and well-to-do liberals may want to rethink the imbalance in their spending, cutting back on the campaign-reform movement and putting more money into a media infrastructure that can stand up to right-wing propaganda year-round.
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This story was published on June 23, 2008.