Dirty secret behind McCutcheon: Why everyone's getting the "winners and losers" wrong

This isn't just about Democrats and Republicans -- it's also about intra-party battles and the job of a legislator

Published April 4, 2014 3:05PM (EDT)

Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia, John Roberts                                   (Reuters/Brendan McDermid/AP/Larry Downing/photo collage by Salon)
Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia, John Roberts (Reuters/Brendan McDermid/AP/Larry Downing/photo collage by Salon)

When John Roberts' Supreme Court dropped the Citizens United decision in 2010, bringing in the modern era of court-ordered campaign finance deregulation that continued on schedule with Wednesday's McCutcheon v. FEC decision, there were approximately zero members of the Democratic apparatus touting the development. Unlimited spending from big donors -- corporations and individual billionaires -- was bound to favor the Republican Party in the Obama era. And in 2010, it did. By 2012, the arms race had ballooned into the first multibillion-dollar presidential campaign in history, which effectively turned the nation's television sets into a 24/7 loop of campaign commercials.

But now the arms race has taken on such an unstoppable momentum of its own that it's accepted as the natural order of things, and the battles aren't just about Democrats vs. Republicans: They're about intra-party jockeying for position on a moving platform. The fault line isn't just Democrats vs. Republicans anymore. It's also either party's politicians vs. fundraisers vs. donors. There's an ever-widening spigot of cash out there, and you'd better be claiming as much of it as you can, whether you like it or not.

Since Wednesday, most Democratic politicians have been publicly trashing the court's 5-4 decision to eliminate aggregate caps on donations to candidates and political parties. Sen. Patrick Leahy plans to hold a Judiciary Committee hearing on the effects of McCutcheon, claiming that it and other court rulings "have eviscerated our campaign finance laws." Sen. Chuck Schumer warned that the court is trending "back to the days of the robber barons." And Harry Reid -- bless his soul -- invoked his famously fast friends: "All it does is take away people’s rights because, as you know, the Koch brothers are trying to buy America."

It's unclear, though, how much of this rhetoric from the Democratic senators is put-on. If the chief effect of McCutcheon -- other than increasing the amount of money in politics to even more otherworldly levels -- is to deliver more power to the party committees in their battle for donors against Citizens United-empowered outside spending groups, then this ruling wouldn't have been especially beneficial to the Kochs' outside spending empire. And one can't help wondering if Schumer, one of the Democratic Party's most prolific fundraisers, isn't even slightly pleased with his newly enhanced donor-shakedown powers.

Furthermore, Democrats are fighting an uphill battle to retain control of the Senate -- and keep Reid his title of majority leader -- and McCutcheon should help them compete in key battleground states. For professional Democratic party fundraisers, then, McCutcheon serves as something akin to total victory. One couldn't help noticing, for example, these tweets from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee's deputy executive director yesterday suggesting as much:

[embedtweet id=451397043526070272]
[embedtweet id=451397243648872450]

(The "Bannock Street Project" is the DSCC's name for its $60 million voter-turnout effort in competitive senatorial races.)

That's a more polite way of putting it. Another "Democratic Campaign Committee official," on the other hand, told Roll Call that he was "happy as a pig in shit." As Roll Call added, "while advocates of campaign finance limits on and off Capitol Hill assailed the ruling as an invitation to corruption and campaign finance abuses, party officials welcomed the decision."

So there's a split opinion among Democrats. Whereas Republican politicians and party fundraisers welcomed the decision, Democratic politicians publicly bemoan it while Democratic party fundraisers are delighted. (Big donors to both parties, meanwhile, are irritated that they'll now have to fork over more cash to stay in their respective parties' good graces.)

The response that perhaps best bridged the Democrats' two minds on McCutcheon was House Minority Leader Rep. Nancy Pelosi's on Thursday. She didn't take the easy path and just complain about how the Supreme Court had given Republicans another weapon, saying, as the Huffington Post reported, that the decision doesn't put Democrats at a disadvantage.

"Democrats can raise money. People care about our values," she said. "We've out-raised everybody." Still, she indicated exhaustion with this never-ending "money war" -- one in which you need to compete, if only to stay ahead of the other team.

That feeling seems to underlie much of Democratic politicians' annoyance with McCutcheon, even if it will allow the party to raise more money: That fundraising is now just becoming a time suck with diminishing marginal returns.

Occasionally lawmakers will speak out about something that a lot of people don't fully understand: the amount of time that lawmakers spend raising money, not just for their own campaigns, but to meet targets set out by their parties. Not just at fancy dinners and cocktail party fundraisers, either, although those certainly exist. But time spent literally sitting in a cubby hole with a telephone calling people, for money. As Democratic Rep. Jim Cooper explained to the Nashville Scene late last year:

One of the tragedies of modern Washington is the fact that most of my colleagues spend most of their time raising money. We meet in Washington very few days, but those days we're in Washington, lots of times, they're not in committee, they're not meeting with constituents from back home. They're doing what's called "call time" from these call centers right off the hill. Just inches off of federal soil, so they can solicit contributions, and that has a very negative effect.

Former Rep. David Obey and Sen. Chris Dodd, both longtime members of Congress who retired in 2011, said much the same in exit interviews with Bloomberg News. “Some members spend more time dialing for dollars than on legislation," Obey said, while Dodd noted that "people just elected a month ago already are holding or planning fundraising events." And if you're in the leadership, raising even greater amounts of money to spread around to your colleagues is a key part of securing alliances.

And now Democratic politicians and donors have greater expectations to meet, set by Democratic Party officials, to compete first with outside Democratic groups for donors, as well as with a newly beefed-up RNC and the impressive galaxy of Republican outside spending groups, who are busy waging "civil war."

This is where John Roberts' complete lack of understanding about the influence of money in politics is most acute: With each successive naive ditty of a decision his court drops regarding political spending, the more he turns the legislator's job into that of a full-time fundraiser. Nice work, freedom fighter.

By Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

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