The American Debate: Dems sing new tune on finances

ANDRE PENNER / Associated Press
ANDRE PENNER / Associated Press

Last year, they decried the GOP's secret donors. But after last fall's thumping, they've joined the club.

Posted: June 05, 2011

Obviously, if we had a dime for every time the politicians junked their avowed convictions, we'd all be living in luxury. But it's still breathtaking to behold the Democrats' blatant embrace of a sleazy campaign tactic that they condemned just eight months ago.

Last autumn, President Obama and his political allies insisted that secret donations were a "threat to democracy." On the eve of the 2010 congressional elections, key Republicans such as Karl Rove were raising and spending millions of bucks from anonymous donors, and the Democrats were crying foul. Obama said, "The American people deserve to know who's trying to sway their elections," and deputy White House press secretary Bill Burton warned that "unless a bright light is shined on the shadowy activity of these outside groups, people aren't going to know the facts."

One flip-flop later, here's the deal today:

Obama's closest allies - most notably Burton, newly freed from his White House job - have created new organizations that will raise secret money. Just like Rove and his conservative friends, these Obama-allied nonprofit groups are taking advantage of a tax loophole that allows donors to pony up as much money as they want - without any requirement that these donors be publicly revealed.

In other words, the Democrats were against this "shadowy activity," this "threat to democracy," before they were for it.

Hypocritical? Absolutely. But let us also wax philosophical. When a political party's ideals collide with cold reality, what should it do? Are principles more important than winning?

Obama's allies - operating "independently" of the White House, of course - have calculated that they can no longer afford to stake out the high road, that the only way to beat the opposition is to join them on the low road. Democrats were badly outspent in 2010, thanks to the GOP's secret-donor groups - much of the secret money was spent on TV ads that helped the Republicans capture the House in November - and Burton, for one, vows that this imbalance will not be repeated. In his words, "The days of the double standard are over."

Democrats being Democrats, they do feel bad about their decision to solicit secret money from undisclosed donors. "Transparency" has long been an Obama buzzword; the problem with "shadowy activity" is that the public will never know who's giving the big money and what those donors are demanding in return. Indeed, former Obama senior adviser David Axelrod conceded all that during a recent TV interview: "We don't really know who's going to spend what. I don't think it's healthy. I don't think it's good. But it's the system we have."

Ah yes, the cold reality. Burton has similarly said, "The laws we have are not the ones we wish we had."

These guys sound a lot like Donald Rumsfeld, the Pentagon chief who famously said, "You go to war with the army you have - not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time."

This oscillation between idealism and pragmatism, particularly with respect to campaign financing, has long been a distinctly Democratic pattern.

For years they vowed to change the rules and crack down on campaign money (the future they might want or wish to have at a later time) - but first they had to beat the Republicans in accordance with the old rules (you go to war with the army you have).

Bill Clinton played it that way. As a new president, he voiced his opposition to "soft money" (unlimited donations to political parties), but when his reelection seemed imperiled, he fell in love with soft money.

Banning it would be nice, but first he had to win. He competed with the Republicans for soft money so relentlessly that he got stuck in a fund-raising scandal. This was the one where he rented out the Lincoln Bedroom as a perk to donors.

Back in that era, circa 1996, Democrats were always insisting that they would resurrect the reform issue after they won the election. They never did. Bill Burton, whose secret-donor group is called Priorities USA, is making the same kind of promise now, arguing that 2012 pragmatism could usher in a new dawn of idealism: "If you want to change the direction of the car, you have to have your hands on the steering wheel."

Naturally, the Republican camp is rhetorically amused by what it calls the Obama team's "brazen hypocrisy." As a spokesman for Rove's secret-donor group, American Crossroads GPS, recently scoffed, Obama's top allies "are launching the very type of groups they demagogued as 'shadowy threats to democracy.' " All true. But, as the old saying goes, politics ain't beanbag. Tactically, it makes no sense for the Democrats to bring switchblades to a street fight when the other side is manning up with howitzers.

The right-leaning U.S. Supreme Court triggered the new arms race when it essentially ruled two years ago that corporations, labor unions, and rich people can pump unlimited donations into the political realm. Rove and friends took advantage by organizing American Crossroads GPS as a "social welfare organization," which, under the tax code, is not required to disclose donors. Roughly $50 million of the group's 2010 secret money has never been disclosed, and that figure is expected to be overshadowed in 2012.

Let it also be noted that, one year ago, Senate Democrats tried to enact a law requiring that all political donors be identified. All 41 Republicans refused to allow a vote. The reform died. So Obama's allies had a choice this spring: They could stay pure and practice unilateral disarmament, or they could follow the GOP into the darkness.

In the best of all possible worlds, they might have stayed true to their ideals. But, sadly, that option was a luxury. Because the patron saint of politics today is Vince Lombardi, the legendary football coach, who said: "Winning isn't everything, but it's the only thing. In our business, there is no second place. Either you're first or you're last."


E-mail Dick Polman

at dpolman@phillynews.com.

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