More Pseudo-Contrarianism

By James Kwak

I accidentally glanced at the link to David Brooks’s recent column and—oh my god, is it stupid. You may want to stop reading right here to avoid being exposed to it.

Basically, Brooks says that the Supreme Court’s decision in McCutcheon is pro-democratic because it strengthens political parties relative to “donors and super PACs.” In case you weren’t aware, McCutcheon eliminates the aggregate limits on direct contributions to candidates, parties, and PACs (not super PACs–no such limits exist) but the individual contribution limits still stand—so now you can max out to more candidates and parties than you could before.

First of all, let’s be clear about the practical impact here. In the 2012 cycle, 644 people hit the aggregate limits, and they donated $93 million (to entities governed by aggregate limits). That’s nothing. Sheldon Adelson alone contributed close to $150 million. And the limits on what you can donate to either party’s national committee, or either party’s Senate committee or House committee, still stand.

So basically we’re talking about those very few people who, when asked to contribute to (say) the DCCC, said, “Sorry, I’m maxed out.” At the margin, now some of those people can write the check to the DCCC rather than to some super PAC—although they can also write the check to some candidate, or that candidate’s PAC, and that money isn’t under party control.

In Brooks’s world, this is good because weaker parties make it harder for challengers to unseat incumbents. Huh? Has he seen what is going on over in Republican land? The rise of super PACs is a major reason why extreme right wing candidates, funded by the Club for Growth and FreedomWorks, can threaten far right candidates preferred by the Republican Party.

The big money is in super PACs and 501(c)(4)s not because the super-donors wanted to give money to the parties but couldn’t. It’s there because the super-donors like it that way. They like the anonymity of giving to a 501(c)(4). They like the ability to dictate what a super PAC does, rather than having to compete with other people trying to influence a national party.

Brooks also thinks that the current emphasis on fundraising is a consequence of weak parties: “With the parties weakened, lawmakers have to do many campaign tasks on their own. They have to do their own fundraising and their own kissing up to special interests.”

Correlation, causality. The reason candidates have to raise more money is that they need more money. The reason they need more money is that there is a lot more money in politics. The reasons there is a lot more money is politics are (a) rich people have vastly more money than they did a few decades ago and (b) campaign finance laws now allow those rich people to spend a lot more money on politics. That’s why Barack Obama and Mitt Romney both spent time not just soliciting checks made out to their campaigns, but also appearing at events for their “uncoordinated” coordinated super PACs.

McCutcheon isn’t quite the end of the world, because its immediate practical impact is not as big as that of Citizens United and SpeechNow.org. It is significant as a precedent, since it shows that a majority of the Court is perilously close to tossing out contribution limits altogether, going further down the Citizens United rabbit hole in which corruption doesn’t exist. If justices think that a multi-million-dollar donation to a politician’s uncoordinated super PAC isn’t corruption or the appearance of corruption, then there’s no amount of stupidity they aren’t capable of.

10 responses to “More Pseudo-Contrarianism

  1. James, I have not read the Brooks column and have no opinion on it. But you may have the rules a bit wrong. There may be only 644 people who hit the global maximum (the WSJ article is gated, so I can’t see exactly how it’s phrased), but that does not necessarily mean that there are only 644 people who “maxed out” to the party committees (DNC, RNC, DSCC, DCCC, RNSC, RNCC), which have a separate limit. That is to say, there is a global limit on federal dollars as well as a smaller limit that applies to national parties and their affiliates. There are actually donors who are interested in supporting a party but do not want to spend a lot of time sorting through individual candidates (or employing a political assistant of some sort to do so). That’s not to say that there aren’t also a lot of people for whom blathering with dozens of candidates, especially incumbents, is the whole point of participating; there are, and those people do far outnumber the other sort. But it’s completely conceivable that there some mega-donor(s) who know they hate Democrats or Republicans*, but do not want to think much harder about it. In fact, it’s almost guaranteed. Even if there are only a few, the party committees will find them, and it’s quite conceivable that some or all of the party committees could become much bigger players than they have been. (Of course, in most targeted House and Senate races they have been pretty big players for the last 15-20 years, after a post-Watergate period of relative irrelevance.)

    I was told many years ago by a state legislative leader that politics is not motivated by peace and love, it’s motivated by hate and fear (pronounced “haeyt and faeyr”, so you can guess roughly the region). For most large donors, that is certainly the case.

  2. We need to be more of a fair tax society and charity starts at home family. Now it’s all grades and competition, hard lined contracts, sucky education standards and a dog eat dog mentality. It simply can’t keep on like this, in all of recorded history, and it’s a long one, we’ve never gotten past 2018. And nobody cares why, could two sisters start WW 3?

  3. I didn’t read it as you suggest but agree it is stupid. After all it is Brooks.

  4. No one got past 2018 because by then they thought that everyone would be enrolled into “health care”.

  5. Moses Herzog

    Brooks has made some unbelievably asinine comments lately (even for him) and one within the last 2 weeks that absolutely incensed me that I was going to comment on the net about, and I had forgot what is was now. Maybe it will come to me again. But it was really really unbelievable and I just remember thinking that I couldn’t believe that any rational human being could listen to this idiot over an extended period of time, other than to do some kind of Beavis and Butthead style Commentary as they watched him:

    I think one of the (not the most, but one of the) hardest jobs in the world is Judy Woodruff’s job on NewsHour. She has to listen to this Republican party sycophant blabber out complete nonsense, knowing the camera will intermittently bounce back to her face, and how Miss Woodruff creeps a straight face when Brooks spews out this crap is really some kind of miracle in human tolerance.

  6. Bill O'Brien

    Brooks has also pointed out that since Citizens United the tremendous infusions of cash – Adelson, Kcohs, drum major Rove – did not turn elections – primaries or generals. (The impact is greater in the primaries.) The ads are largely targeted at the base whose votes are already decided. The GOP does not necessarily embrace the fringe candidates as is apparent by the growing schism within the Republican Party and Boehner’s inability to rule the House.

  7. Are we still voting?

  8. Moses Herzog

    Warning, unrelated to post topic
    My father was a big Mickey Rooney fan. He was of his generation. He was a great entertainer.

    http://www.kansascity.com/2014/04/06/4941965/reports-hollywood-icon-mickey.html

    Although his mind had gotten a little foggy in recent years, he was a great human being and one of the more humble guys you would ever meet in Hollywood for his level of fame. This is Mickey, on the left, dancing with Dick Van Dyke in “Night At The Museum”:

    Don’t ask me why I’m putting this up on this blog other than I thought there are other like-minded people of the good readers of Baselinescenario who appreciate people who “hit the big time” and don’t let their ego grow in exact correlation to their wallet and/or status.

  9. Totally wrong: the reason they need a lot more money is that there is a lot more money in politics.

    That’s basically Reaganomics! They need money because campaigns are expensive. If TV time was free then it wouldn’t matter how much money rich people have.

  10. Few things epitomize the dangers of the disproportionate share of returns going to capital and the threat posed by its limitless mobility quite like the increasing quantity of campaign contributions being directed towards out-of-district elections, which is at the heart of McCutcheon’s case.