Democrats forfeit the use of their most powerful message: criticizing Republicans' campaign fundraising.
Wisconsin Democracy Campaign’s Mike McCabe likes to point out that Democrats here in Wisconsin and elsewhere lost their way when instead of battling to get big money out of our political system, they actually worsened the process by joining in the mad scramble themselves.
Even when they were in power, they refused to take the high road by championing campaign finance reform and full disclosure of special-interest donors. Tackling the money issue, despite adverse court rulings, could have put the party on the high road of working in the interests of all the people. Instead, they became as attached to deep-pocketed money sources as their Republican opponents, causing people to ask, “What’s the difference?”
“When the Democrats won the hearts of a majority of people in the past, it was because the party had a big hand in creating things that tangibly benefited everyone or at least directly touched every American family in a major way. Social Security and Medicare. Rural electrification. The GI bill,” he wrote in a column that appeared in the Capital Times recently.
“Today’s Democrats have broken the sacred political law of universality,” he continued. “They may say we’re all in this together and need to look out for each other, but people in places like rural Clark County where I grew up don’t see them practicing what they preach. Most people in such parts of Wisconsin see today’s Democrats standing for health and retirement security and better pay for a few, but not for most.”
Particularly in Wisconsin, Democrats turned to the public worker and trade unions to raise the money to counter the flow of cash from the likes of the Koch brothers, Karl Rove’s PACs and major corporations. When George W. Bush’s Great Recession devastated Main Street, the Republicans, who should have taken the rap for what happened to the economy, were cleverly able to use the Democrats’ union contributions against them.
Public workers and unionized employees became the “privileged” and the Dems their defenders. Republicans would ask an unemployed worker in McCabe’s Clark County, for instance, if he had a pension. When he’d answer “no,” they’d counter: “Well, you’re paying for good pensions for all those state workers in Madison.” The suggestion, I guess, is that everyone should be miserable.
There’s a lot of truth to McCabe’s analysis. But, no matter how strongly the public claims to be opposed to all those campaign contributions, what’s frustrating is that we the people often reward those who raise the most money, no matter how tainted it is.
In Wisconsin’s recall election, for example, the fundraising was, to put it bluntly, obscene. Governor Scott Walker pulled in millions upon millions from big corporate interests that often had absolutely no connection to the state except for their mutual hatred of unions. The ad blitz painted Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett as beholden to public workers, even while those workers were, at least, real live Wisconsin citizens who pay taxes and spend their money here at home unlike the Texas, California and Illinois millionaires who generously forked over their dough.
At a meeting of the FightingBob.com-sponsored “People’s Legislature” earlier this year, McCabe and others argued that the time had come for a candidate to say “no” to all that poisonous money and run as a “people’s” candidate, relying on good old, Bill Proxmire-like campaigning where volunteers reached out and rallied the people for a just cause and spent very little doing so.
Most Democrats were aghast at such a suggestion. “Unilaterally disarm? It’s suicide,” many said.
Ironically, accepting big campaign contributions from deep-pocketed sources may be suicide in itself, especially if one side can get away with accusing the other of being beholden to “special interests” while being in the pocket of even stronger special interests at the same time — a phenomenon we just saw in the recall.
There’s no question that something needs to be done about the influence of big money in our political system, including somehow overturning the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which has made it all the more difficult to get a handle on this perplexing problem. If we don’t, those with the greatest wealth will control more and more of our democracy. (Incredibly, the court reaffirmed Citizens United last week.)
It will never get done, however, if we the people don’t pay attention to what’s happening and stop rewarding those whose interest is in maintaining the status quo.
(A version of this article originally appeared in the opinion section of the Capital Times.)
July 1, 2012
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Dave Zweifel is editor emeritus of the Capital Times and a FightingBob.com contributing editor.