Have Progressives Forgotten Campaign Finance Reform?

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November 26, 2012; Source: Politico

Last week, we wondered whether the Democratic ardor for campaign finance reform might have ebbed a bit since the recent elections. This Politico article concludes something similar: “It took Democrats a while to warm up to super PACs, but their glee over 2012 is – for now – eclipsing any moral qualms about big money eroding democracy.”

Politico reports that House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) were joined by former and current White House aides such as Gene Sperling and Jon Carson at a “three-day secret meeting of major Democratic donors and officials from liberal outside groups gearing up for 2014.” The “secret” meeting was a convening of the Democracy Alliance, a network of liberal donors originally created to support the construction of an infrastructure of progressive think tanks and political activists to compete with the strong array of conservative organizations that were well ahead of the liberal left not all that many years ago. Super PAC participants included Priorities USA Action, set up by former Obama aides, as well as the House Majority PAC linked to Pelosi, America Votes, and EMILY’s List.

According to Politico, “Their goal [is] a permanent network of officially blessed independent groups that leverages liberals’ increasing acceptance and appreciation of outside money to compete with a much-better-funded Republican shadow party.” Nonetheless, Democracy Alliance chairperson Rob McKay suggested campaign finance reform is still on the agenda of progressives: “We spent wisely on every aspect of the 2012 campaign … but we’re not resting, instead we’re mobilizing to get progressive policies passed in D.C. to finally put in place comprehensive immigration reform and limit the effect of money on our political system.”

Because all of the comments in Politico are comments from a meeting whose discussions were ostensibly not on the record, it is difficult to really gauge how much discussion might have occurred on the issue of campaign finance. The article suggests that the liberal or progressive infrastructure of big money going to super PACs (and, presumably, affiliated 501(c)(4) social welfare organizations) isn’t going to hibernate for 2014 or 2016. Priorities USA advisor Paul Begala suggested that the best route to go might be to have a small number of well funded operations in contrast to the cacophony of the conservatives this year who had lots of super PACs and other “independents” that he described as a “demolition derby on the right.”

Of more interest are the comments of the donors to these groups. New York donor/philanthropist Amy Goldman gave $4 million to the American Bridge super PAC and others and has already been approached for early donations for the next election cycle. She described super PACs as “a reality that I wish would go away” but says that “I had to fight on their terms.” Houston trial lawyer Stephen Mostyn and his law partner wife gave $4.2 million to super PACs and suggested, “There will be less reluctance — and more willingness — to participate in super PACs this time.” He expressed hope for “a mutual disarmament” in super PAC financing, but if that doesn’t emerge, he promised, “we’ll be back.”

Will the Democratic Party and the progressive community’s “skepticism about outside money writ large,” as put by American Bridge President Rodell Mollineau, win out over the long run? Or, will progressives hew to his observation that “there were converts won over this last election cycle, and there is now a sense that we need to compete with super PACs and outside groups, and we can win elections if we do?”

Beating Republicans at their own game can be intoxicating for Democrats. That’s understandable. But the electoral system needs some sobering up by reducing its intake of big money—maybe even going cold turkey. It would not be good in the long run if the progressives’ presidential election victory on November 6 becomes a rationale not to seriously pursue campaign finance reform.—Rick Cohen