Monday morning, CNN published a report on the brave new world of campaign finance — specifically, how the benighted souls tasked with raising, coordinating, spending and reraising political donations have used Twitter to take advantage of the supertanker-size loopholes in the laws barring super PACs and the like from working hand-in-hand with official campaigns. To the extent that the money-raisers' weapon of choice in this instance was Twitter, it represented something new; but in a larger sense, when seen in the context of the last 30-plus years of American politics, the story of partisan fundraisers getting the job done by any means necessary is old, indeed.
That's certainly one of the main takeaways of "Political Mercenaries: The Inside Story of How Fundraisers Allowed Billionaires to Take Over Politics," the new book by former Democratic fundraiser and current Progressive Policy Institute executive director Lindsay Mark Lewis. A mix of memoir and analysis, Lewis' book gives us an inside look into the life of a major party moneyman — and it ain't pretty. Last week, Salon called up Lewis to discuss his book, as well as the one campaign finance reform measure he thinks is most attainable but that most reformers don't mention. Our conversation is below and has been edited for clarity and length.
So what exactly is a "political mercenary"?
A political mercenary is a person primarily concerned with instant material reward, and that’s, to me, what fundraisers have become. It’s about getting rewarded for the instant gratification of raising campaign money at the expense of doing what’s right and creating good policy.
I started doing fundraising in the early '90s, and I got into it for what I thought was the right reasons — trying to make the country a better place. Over the years, I witnessed how corrosive and bad this system has become and got motivated, in the last couple of years, to try to do something and at least shed some light on how bad it’s gotten. Out of that came a crazy idea to write a book about my experiences, and here we are, one year later.
And what are you trying to get across to people with this book that you think they might not understand already?
One of the motivators for me, over the last couple of years, has been how the reforming of our money system in politics has almost become a partisan issue. Democrats continue to pretend this is a one-sided issue, but to me it’s a bipartisan issue. Both sides play the game and are a part of the problem, and we have to find a way to shed a light on that. Democrats are fundraisers, too, and the way they do it corrupts the system — not as far as simplistic bribery, but ... we’ve gone from a $300,000 congressional seat to a $2 million congressional seat for Democrats or Republicans, and it changes who actually runs for Congress and how they act when they’re in Congress.
Your point about how it affects who runs, that's something I come across a lot when talking to people who are either running for Congress or considering doing so. It often seems like the requirements for how much money you have to raise before the national parties will even look at you makes it so a bunch of people who might run for office — and might be supported by many — don't even bother.
That’s exactly what it is. We’ve created a system where we self-select the candidates before they even start to run ... If you can’t prove that you can get to a million on your own, the national Democrats are not going to invest in you. Who are the people who can actually come up with a million dollars? It’s not the same people who ran for Congress 25 or 30 years ago. You have to have one hell of a Rolodex or one hell of a bank account to even consider running for Congress. That’s got to be an awful feeling for a candidate who actually has great ideas but doesn’t have the wealthy friends to raise more than a couple hundred thousand dollars ...
We talk a lot about how the hyper-wealthy run the parties, but we don't always have an insider's sense of what those conversations between donors and fundraisers are like. What's the vibe like in those situations, in your experience?
The way to motivate extremely wealthy folks to get involved with you is mostly through fear — and that’s fear of the other guy. Especially for Democrats, when you look at where the donors are, they're in New York and California, and that drives the conversation from the fundraiser’s point of view because you want to motivate an Upper East Side liberal to get excited about a candidate in Alabama. The only way to do that is to talk about what the other guys are going to do if we don’t beat them. It’s dramatically increased the partisanship in Congress, and it’s directly related to money. Everybody thinks partisanship is about the Tea Party or the left, but it’s about money.
And that's why it's wrong to see this as a partisan issue?
It’s completely wrong. You can say what you want about the Koch brothers; they have an agenda. But does that mean George Soros doesn’t have an agenda? Or a wealthy Hollywood person doesn't have an agenda? I’m not picking sides on who has the right agenda; it’s just the influence of the time [spent] appealing to those folks that changes how Congress works. For Democrats to say that my liberal billionaire is a better person than your right-wing billionaire is disingenuous at best. And it’s false.
Do you think this is something the people actually involved in the fundraising apparatuses, and the people running the parties at the uppermost level, want to change? Or are they comfortable with things as they are?
I think both sides have something of a desire to fix the system, but they don’t know how to do it. For Democrats, I think you’d find, if they could do it without their leadership knowing, that they’d love not to have to raise money 12 hours a week starting in January. They don’t know how to adjust that. Leadership policy loves money; it shows power. I don’t know what’s going to happen in the next couple of weeks with the congressional Democrats but if policy hangs on it’s going to be around the ability to raise money and the fear of losing that connection to money. There is a real desire [for change] among the average member of Congress. They just don’t know how to do it. And when you make it a partisan issue, there’s no chance of ever getting reform.
Because it misunderstands the dynamic and because then you’re just throwing the issue into the gridlock machine?
Exactly. And, you know, you’re being dishonest with yourself and with the public by saying, “We’re clean over here because we’re Democrats” and “our million-dollar checks are OK.”
Given that the people who run for Congress are a pretty self-selecting group, how do you think the constant obsession with fundraising affects them? Does it narrow their vision? Does it lead them to become disillusioned and cynical?
It does. For anyone sitting out there thinking about running for Congress, I hope they know what they’re getting themselves into. I don’t think a lot of those folks would appreciate what they have to do once they get to Washington; I think the average right now is 12 hours a week for a junior member of Congress, making calls or going to fundraisers — and you’re only in D.C. three days per week, so one of those three days a week is spent raising money.
It’s not what some reformers want to believe; it’s not a quid pro quo relationship that comes out of that. It’s the time and effort you have to put into it. You’re spending the time talking to donors that are not in your district or maybe even in your state; you’re talking to, who knows, Boston, New York, L.A., San Francisco, when you represent a district in Texas.
It’s a gray area, but it changes how you actually think about politics and policy. A generation ago, what we used to talk about was how Hal Heflin was an Alabama Democrat or Silvio Conte was a Massachusetts Republican. You don’t have those conversations anymore. That’s either a Tea Party guy or a liberal Democrat. It’s changed the complete dynamic of who these folks are, and that’s come from spending 12 hours a week relating to your new constituents, who are your donors.
You're reminding me of an often overlooked bit in the president's second book, "The Audacity of Hope," in which he says that he could tell how spending a lot of time with wealthy donors was affecting his view of the world, mostly in ways he couldn't control or wasn't always aware of. I'm guessing that happens to a lot of politicians?
It does. I can’t say that happens to all of them, but definitely to a majority ... It’s not like they get a call from a rich donor saying, “I’ll give you five grand if you vote no on HR314.” It’s just the conversations and the time they're putting in to appeal to that person. They're not calling a very wealthy person and hoping for a one-off check. This is a relationship they want to try to build for their next two, three, four elections. And that takes a lot of time and effort and conversations with that donor that don’t have to do with your own district.
So considering you've seen just how bad things really are, how do you combat despair or fatalism when it comes to this issue?
I’m not hopeless on it, or else I would have skipped putting my life in a book. There is a chance to do something here, and I think it relates to how these guys operate once they get to Washington. I think both sides, Republicans and Democrats, would like to find a way to change this. My concern right now is the reforms coming from the far left are extremely unrealistic — the $100 limit, or matching funds; public [financing of] campaigns is just not where the country is, no matter how much somebody believes in it.
I do have hope of creating almost a time limit on fundraising. Given the opportunity to do something like that, a member of Congress actually would do it. There’s probably three or four members of Congress who love raising money ... I think everybody else would like the opportunity not to hurt themselves in the next election but to not have to come to Washington every Monday night and start making phone calls. I do have hope that there’s ways to make the system work, and ways to make it work where you can take a step backward and start getting people who don’t have to raise a million dollars to compete for a congressional seat. Getting back to a local representative, instead of nationalizing all of this.
Can we back up for a second, and could you tell me more about your view on public financing? Is your criticism that the public isn't going to like the idea? Or that people in Congress won't allow it?
I think it’s both. I think the public would have issues with it on some level, outside of certain places. It would be extremely successful, obviously, in New York or California. I think people would not trust it in Middle America; it’s another government-controlling-our-elections angle or a loss of some freedom. Also, if you get to a matching fund at a low number, you’re not addressing some of the real problems with the system. Grass-roots money is not what people think it is; the ones that scream the loudest raise the most ... When Ted Cruz shut down the government last year he raised $2 million online over those two weeks. Why wouldn’t that happen every couple of weeks?
So you're saying that by focusing so much on the grass roots, we're missing where the politicians are looking, which is up higher?
To a point, yeah. I think politicians look at both; they spend their time with the wealthy donors and that’s how they think about policy, but when you need to attract 100,000 people to give you $12, you have to scream the loudest. That affects how they operate in Congress, too.