Hate the Game

Yes, we have to reform the rules of campaign finance. But we cant tie our hands in the meantime. A response to Russ Feingold.

By Bill Burton

Tagged Campaign FinanceCitizens United

The Democratic Party is the party of reform. It is a mantle that the party must not wear lightly. Reform requires constant re-energizing and needs leaders such as Senator Russ Feingold to continuously test and challenge it. Feingold does just that in his essay “Building a Permanent Majority for Reform,” [Issue #27] and I actually agree with much of what he says about the ways in which our system is broken and how the Democratic Party should be spearheading reform. However, until campaign-finance reform is a reality, the party of reform should not be one of perpetual loss.

The Supreme Court failed our nation with its Citizens United decision, which struck down our campaign-finance laws and opened the door to $600 million in super PAC donations this past election cycle. Let me be clear: Super PACs are a bad idea. Nondisclosure breeds a system of campaign finance that Americans should not abide.

But Democrats should not sit idly by as Karl Rove and the Koch brothers raise and spend hundreds of millions of dollars to overpower the political system. And they’re not raising this money just for their idle amusement. Their causes are crystal clear. You can read Karl Rove’s advice to politicians in this country every week in The Wall Street Journal: how to campaign against the Buffett Rule, how to sell Paul Ryan’s plan to end Medicare, how to blame Senate Democrats for the housing bubble of 2008. You can tell the kind of fossil-fuel future the Koch brothers see for our nation from the ads they ran during election season. In March 2012, a group receiving funding from the Kochs hit President Obama with a $3.6 million ad campaign, criticizing his opposition to oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and his handling of the Keystone XL pipeline. Their fight is for a right-wing ideology that puts corporations first and the middle class last and that would move our country backwards on energy, income inequality, women’s rights, and many other issues—including, yes, campaign finance.

But before we consider the future of campaign finance, let’s examine what happened in our most recent presidential election.

In October 2011, the number of Americans who thought the country was on the right track stood at 15 percent—not far from the 8.9 percent unemployment rate at the time. Consumer confidence had dipped to a historic low.

Most Americans were feeling palpable economic gloom as the President headed into his final campaign. And as Americans were settling in for the presidential contest, Republicans were choosing a former CEO with an astonishing record of making himself and his partners hundreds of millions of dollars and who had extensive connections among America’s rich.

From the beginning, it was clear that Mitt Romney would have the best-funded campaign of any presidential challenger ever. What was also clear was that his allies on the right were arming themselves with hundreds of millions of dollars to do the work that Romney wouldn’t have to do in his own campaign. One wayward billionaire even proposed a $10 million ad campaign attacking the President for his one-time association with the Reverend Jeremiah Wright.

At the beginning of the campaign, progressives had a choice. In the name of campaign-finance reform, should we unilaterally disarm, leaving the door open for Rove, the Kochs, and their allies to pick the next President? Or do we fight like hell with every means at our disposal to ensure that President Obama can continue to fight for all those issues we supported him for in the first place?

Campaign-finance reform is a pillar of progressivism. It first entered the political conversation when President Theodore Roosevelt argued for its need at the beginning of the twentieth century; this led to the Tillman Act of 1907, the first ban on corporate contributions in federal elections. But in 2012, disarming ourselves and failing to do everything in our power to make sure that we could advance our values and fend off the conservative charge seemed like a case of cutting off our nose to spite our face—or, I suppose you could say, cutting seniors off of Medicare, children off of Head Start, and immigrants off from the national mainstream just to spite the Supreme Court.

Many of us weren’t willing to lose an election just to make a point. Campaign-finance reform was not a luxury Democrats could afford to wait for in this election cycle. We live in an uncertain world with hurricanes and disasters and other events that can’t be predicted. But every four years, presidential elections are the most important event that we know with certainty will happen. None of them is worth taking a pass on.

Because of President Obama’s historic and effective campaign, and the efforts of people in outside groups like Priorities USA Action, SEIU, and Planned Parenthood, he won re-election under profoundly difficult circumstances.

Important lessons were learned in this election—but not just by Democrats. While it can be fairly said that Republican groups misspent hundreds of millions of dollars, their donors still seem committed to having right-wing groups advance a severely conservative agenda. At this very moment, individuals on the right are writing off their embarrassing results in 2012 and getting ready to try again. There are freight trains of cash on the right, and they don’t appear to be running out of steam.

Las Vegas entrepreneur Sheldon Adelson has already committed to participating in future elections, likening his $150 million spent in 2012 to a bad bet and promising to double his efforts in the next cycle—“a new hand,” as he calls it. A spokesman for Texas housing tycoon Bob Perry, who has given millions over the years to the GOP and to causes like the “Swift boat” campaign against John Kerry, said that he was “proud” of his participation in the 2012 election cycle—more than $23 million contributed to outside spending groups—and is “likely to continue” his involvement in conservative politics.

Contrary to Senator Feingold’s suggestion, it is no paradox for progressives who support reform to participate in a system we don’t believe in. At the end of the day, that is the system that elects our leaders—and if we don’t participate, we will lose.

State and local efforts to rein in the campaign-finance system are important, but they are far from comprehensive. The Citizens United decision was made from the top of the judicial branch, and it will not be easy to reverse. Progressives must play the long game with regard to reform, and the long game means engaging the right in election after election in order to advance our goals.

To paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, you go into an election with the rules you have, not the rules you wish you had. If there is going to be any hope for long-term initiatives, Democrats have no choice but to accept that there are rules and that Republicans have the money to exploit them.

Super PACs and outside spending groups are bad for our democracy, and they amplify the voices of corporate interests, enabling them to blare over those of the common citizen. But they are also now a component of the system and a major part of how future elections will be won and lost. Progressives are already at a disadvantage in this landscape, but failing to fight fire with fire only imperils our agenda and especially any serious chance at reform. President Romney and a Republican Congress would never have pushed reform forward. President Obama will.

President Obama has always aggressively opposed the campaign-finance free-for-all that allows the rich to flood their preferred candidates with contributions. Despite his willingness to work within a broken system, he has been a staunch supporter of the DISCLOSE Act and has backed the idea of prohibiting lobbyists from bundling contributions. Even during the 2012 campaign, President Obama endorsed the idea of pushing for a constitutional amendment in order to turn back the Citizens United decision.

I agree with these suggestions, and I’m a fan of Senator Feingold’s ideas as well. The DISCLOSE Act is a great starting point for progressive efforts in a post-Citizens United world, and local initiatives like those under way in New York State hold promise. Take it from me: I was just on the front lines of this fight. We may have won, but we were never in a place to take victory for granted. We scrambled every day to stay in front of the avalanche of attacks coming from the other side. I’ve seen what damage this money does to the political conversation, and any number of reforms are steps in the right direction. Citizens United may have changed the game structurally, but now more than ever there is room for improvement.

Democrats must continue to be the party of reform. We must fight to dramatically change campaign finance so that the voices of the middle class are not drowned out by the millions of dollars the Supreme Court and congressional Republicans have allowed into the system. But until that system is reformed, we cannot leave our values and all that we have fought for vulnerable to the millions of dollars Republicans have and will spend.

Read more about Campaign FinanceCitizens United

Bill Burton was co-founder and senior strategist for Priorities USA Action, the super PAC formed in support of President Barack Obama's re-election. Before that, Burton served as deputy press secretary and special assistant to the President at the White House. He is currently executive vice president of the public affairs firm Global Strategy Group in Washington.

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