The Smell of Deceit

Over at Greg Sargent's blog, Adam Serwer (who also blogs at the American Prospect) has a good post up on the GOP reaction to President Obama's executive order requiring contractors who do business with the federal government to disclose their political donations. 

I predicted the GOP would react this way in an earlier post, but I didn't expect the additional layer of irony that is John Yoo arguing for "a right to political privacy" in the Wall Street Journal. John Yoo, you'll recall, is the guy who said the President could order a village massacred. He's the guy who wrote the torture memos and argued that the fourth amendment doesn't apply to the War on Terror. That exemption was the basis for the warrantless wiretapping program exposed by the New York Times in 2005. And the final sign that Yoo is way out on a limb here is simply that Justice Antonin Scalia disagrees with him:

[R]unning a democracy takes a certain amount of civic courage. And the First Amendment does not protect you from criticism or even nasty phone calls when you exercise your political rights…

So, to recap, according to John Yoo, the American people don't have any right to privacy. The government can seize your phone records, lock you away forever, have you tortured, and whatever else seems like it might stop the terrorists. But should Uncle Sam ask contractors that stand to benefit financially from their campaign donations to disclose who they're giving to–well, that would be government overreach.

Since this issue is complicated, let me boil it down to a few key facts:

  1. The Supreme Court has explicity rejected the argument that disclosure "chills speech." When you speak using your voice, people know that it's you speaking. The same should be true when you speak using your money. 
  2. In Citizens United v. FEC, the Supreme Court specifically called for disclosure: "[w]ith the advent of the Internet, prompt disclosure of expenditures can provide shareholders and citizens with the information needed to hold corporations and elected officials accountable for their positions and supporters… citizens can see whether elected officials are ‘in the pocket’ of so-called moneyed interests."
  3. The Republican Party has blocked off all other avenues for protecting disclosure. The DISCLOSE Act "failed" in the Senate, as a 59-39 majority in favor of it was insuffient to overcome a Republican filibuster. And our General Counsel has written extensively about the way in which the 3-3 Republican-Democrat split in the FEC has rendered the body impotent. The executive order was hardly the preferred option.

Those three facts and the choice of John Yoo as messenger should tell you everything you need to know about the sincerity, coherence and good intentions that underlie the GOP's position on disclosure. 

Read the editorial, it's a masterwork of mendacity, a cavalcade of calumnies, a fraudulent fantasy penned by a man who shouldn't have an iota of credibility on matters of speech, privacy or democracy. On a personal note, I find the sickest thing about Yoo's editorial to be its view that the assault, imprisonment and murder of Civil Rights supporters and disclosure laws are equally injurious to our democracy. Taking a beating in the press is in no way the same as actually taking a beating

Disclosure in 2012

Recently a couple of stories broke about attempts to bring disclosure back into the political fundraising process. The first was about a draft executive order that will make it harder for federal contractors to use campaign finance vehicles like American Crossroads GPS to support candidates without disclosing that fact. The second article covers DCCC chairman Rep. Chris Van Hollen's (D-MD) suit against the FEC as part of an attempt to get that very same group (Crossroads GPS) to disclose its donors. 

Neither article mentions the larger context:

In 2010, a Republican filibuster doomed the DISCLOSE act in the Senate. The DISCLOSE act was a response to the Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United v FEC, and would've enacted the disclosure requirements explicitly called for by Justice Anthony Kennedy in his majority opinion. Republicans killed the bill because they knew disclosure would limit the amount of money they could raise through vehicles like Crossroads GPS. There are plenty of corporations out there that support Republicans, but not all of them are looking to be Target

With the Senate deadlocked, the FEC seemed like another route for protecting disclosure. Unfortunately, it's also paralyzed. By law, the FEC is composed of 3 Democratic and 3 Republican comissioners. As in the Senate, the Republican members of the FEC are hostile to anything that might increase disclosure and bring transparency into the system. So the FEC remains deadlocked (for more on exactly how/why this is happening, see the link above).

That context is important because, when the legislative and regulatory routes are closed down by Republican obstruction, only the courts and executive branch remain. Any right-wing vitriol directed against these measures that doesn't acknowledge the GOP's role in closing off all other routes is an attempt to deceive the audience.  

The issue of disclosure is of critical importance to our democracy. Think of it this way: speech, as most of us understand it, is associated with identifiable voices. Accordingly, if money is speech, we need to know who is speaking. When that link breaks down, it's hard for voters–and the reporters they depend on–to tell what interests are moving through our political process. The advertisements run by Mom 'n Pop Apple Pie Shop could be a underwritten by money from Big Pie, and there'd be no way for anyone to know. Ultimately, there's no way to make an informed decision about who to vote for if you don't and can't know who's backing them.

One option is to take money out of politics, but I'm not sure there's an effective way to use politics to keep money out of politics. If you accept the proposition that interest groups can affect political outcomes, then it seems only natural that they'd work to ensure their main avenue for exerting that influence isn't cut off by an act of Congress. Even if you're willing to assume a perfect piece of campaign finance legislation, you still run into the problem that the law is constantly evolving. A decision down the road that couldn't possibly have been forseen can punch a hole through even the most well-crafted campaign finance law. In fact, we just saw that very thing happen with the Citizens United decision that undermined years of precedent and opened huge gaps in McCain-Feingold. 

That reality is why ActBlue is so important. We're taking the most settled aspect of campaign finance law (the right of individuals to give to candidates) and using it as a way to demonstrate that small donors can have a powerful voice in our politics. By disclosing those donations, we're working to remove the stigma of political giving and make it an easy and regular part of American life. In the end, we're working to restore the very confidence in our political system that Republicans are actively undermining in search of an ever larger, ever less accountable grip on our political system.

Party On, Dems

Ahh, mid-November. Elections are over, leaves are off the trees, pies are cooling on the stove, and recount funds* dot the landscape. With 435 house races whittled down to six, all the fundraising action is driven towards these races. Soon after comes the media attention from POLITICO – who is bankrolling who, what this candidate wants from that one – we've seen it all before.

What we haven't seen before is what is happening in New York, where freshman Rep. Dan Maffei and longtime Congressman Tim Bishop face recounts. Rather than just writing checks, the Democratic congressional delegation has taken their backing to the next level. Amongst others, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, Rep. Anthony Weiner, and even Rep. John Hall - who lost his own seat earlier this month! – are all asking their supporters to help fund these recount committees. ActBlue not only helps Dems build networks of grassroots donors for their own elections, we make sure that same structure is available for these leadership building moments:  Weiner, Gillibrand, and Hall all have built very successful low dollar donor programs that they've dispatched to help their colleagues. 

Note the difference between how these leaders are acting and how POLITICO reports it. In their world, Republican congressmen give $5,000 and some phone numbers for their wealthy friends and hope for an ally in their quest to dole out favors to those same wealthy friends as a committee chairman. In other words, wealth => power.** In our world, Democrats – even those who lost! – are asking their grassroots supporters to join them through ActBlue in supporting their colleagues. With us, people => power.

Why the difference? Well, for one thing, since anyone can fundraise for a candidate listed on ActBlue, it is even easier for these Democratic leaders to ask their grassroots supporters to donate directly to their colleagues than for them to cut a check. You know that we've helped teach Democrats that their grassroots donors are the backbone of their success. Now, Democratic leaders are learning that grassroots donors are there to help build the party, too, and our infrastructure is there to continue that lesson.

Democratic leaders aren't rolling over after 11/2, and neither are we. Where money comes from means a whole lot more than folks let on, and we make it easy for the National Stonewall Democrats, for DailyKos, and for you to let your champions know that you have their back, even in their toughest moments – be it a recount or a leadership fight. ActBlue's tools and techniques are not just for the election season.  It's a whole new way of practicing politics.

*Recount fund: Money used to pay for legal fees incurred by the complicated recount procedures in races that come down to a thin margin. In Republican circles, recount funds are called Ben Ginsberg's Luxury Suite Funds.

**Surprise!

Anonymity

In a pair of articles for the New York Times, Michael Luo delves into the role that anonymous donors are playing in the 2010 elections. Oddly, given his subject matter, he doesn't address the ways in which anonymity conditions what we are willing to say and how we say it.

Anyone who has glanced at a comment thread in the last ten years knows that anonymity and vitriol are intimately linked. Anonymous speakers are insulated from the consequences of their words, and that disconnect inevitably leads to harsher speech. Things we wouldn't say to a stranger on the street are happily tossed around in chat rooms and on forums.

That occurs because anonymity means less accountability: speech by unknown speakers can't rebound to their detriment, though it can damage both the target and the means through which that message was conveyed. That, in turn, incentivizes nastier messages conveyed through disposable conduits. In internet lingo, a flame war started by someone with an anonymous or misleading handle can damage its target, and the reputation of the forum as a whole long before it hurts the author.

These habits have their analogues in our politics. The astonishing growth and success (h/t CRP) of right-wing outside groups this cycle is about damaging Democrats through what are ultimately expendable conduits. Speaking through the ads aired by these organizations, GOP donors are able to elide not one, but two questions: who are you, and what does this ad mean if your guy wins?

Anonymity is the guarantor of security in both cases. It ensures the first question goes unanswered, and prevents the press from doing much more than guesswork when it comes to the second. When a harsh ad debuts, the donor needn't worry about reporters asking them whether they endorse the content. Any politician who benefits from the ad has enough room to distance himself from its content, during the campaign and afterward.

In short, the GOP filibuster of the DISCLOSE Act didn't just enable unlimited spending by anonymous donors. These groups–if they or their equivalents persist after election day–will slowly lead us down the path toward politics-as-flame-war.

Sestak Campaign Statement on ActBlue

Meg Infantino, Treasurer for Sestak For Senate:

ActBlue has been an essential, integral part of our grassroots fundraising efforts.

We've always used ActBlue, starting with Joe Sestak's initial, successful run for Congress back in 2006. That year, Joe led all U.S. House candidates in online fundraising, with contributions totaling almost $1M. Congressman Sestak matched that success during his 2008 re-election campaign, once again leading all US. House candidates with over $1M in online contributions.  Our campaign continues to break new ground this cycle, leading all U.S. Senate candidates on ActBlue with total contributions totaling over $2M and continuing to flow.

ActBlue's ease of use and low cost enabled us to set up our online fundraising operation swiftly, and the knowledge and responsiveness of their support staff continues to impress, year after year. Lastly, but most importantly, ActBlue enables us to receive next-day wire transfers of the money we raise on their site, and that speed is a crucial part of executing a winning campaign strategy in the closing weeks of the election.

ActBlue has been–and continues to be–a valuable partner in offering a convenient and powerful way for our supporters to make a difference in our campaign. Our grassroots campaign doesn't rely on establishment support; for us, and for any successful Democrat, ActBlue is the only way to go!

To Win Big, Think Small

I don't often do this, but I wanted to highlight the efforts of Progressive Kick, a group that's used a dollar-for-dollar match to raise $103K for down-ballot races. There are a couple of reasons why this is a big deal:

First, those dollars will go a lot further in smaller races. While the fundraising numbers that get national attention are measured in millions, a few thousand can make a big difference to candidates running in, say, Montana's 15th legislative district, where the delightfully-named Frosty Calf Boss Ribs won in 2008 with a warchest of $490. (She was unopposed.)

Second, In 2011 the states will redraw the boundaries of their congressional districts to account for population shifts observed in the 2010 census. In most states, the state legislature is responsible for carrying out redistricting; state legislators exercise a tremendous amount of control over what kind of candidate is electable in a given district simply by drawing its borders. Oddly-shaped districts like Trent Franks' vertical pirate ship (AZ-02) and Randy "The Neuge" Neugebauer's LEGO hook-hand (TX-19) are increasingly common these days; districts like Iowa's comfortingly regular blobs are on the wane.  

In other words, control of state chambers results influences redistricting, and redistricting determines the composition of congress. The results of state races in 2010 will define the boundaries of national politics, both literally and figuratively, for a decade to come.

Tom DeLay's (R-TX) involvement in the the '02-'03 "Dancing with the Districts" scandal grew from his appreciation for the importance of redistricting and his willingness to abuse legislative arithmetic to get his way. The Republican attitude toward procedural abuse in search of political advantage has not improved since, a fact that underscores the importance of what Progressive Kick is doing on ActBlue.

Creating Possibilities in Alaska

A few days ago, I wrote about the ways in which ActBlue makes donors nimble and campaigns competitive by helping resources get where they need to go, quickly. I used the Alaska Senate race as an example, and in response a spokesperson for the McAdams campaign emailed this statement along:

Because of ActBlue thousands of people, including Alaskans, were able to donate funds to the Scott McAdams for Senate Campaign. The groundswell of grassroots support helped generate even more momentum for the campaign in the days immediately following the Alaska primary election. It was a great way to illustrate how many people support Scott and is a reminder that individuals can really impact the way campaigns are funded.

I think the key word there is "illustrate." When you give through ActBlue, you're not just helping the candidate out with a little cash. You're also sending a signal to everyone watching those numbers that the support is there. Anyone with 30 seconds and access to the internet can see how their chosen candidate is doing.

Today, McAdams is closing in on Senator Mark Begich's 2008 ActBlue total, and Sen. Murkowski, the GOP incumbent defeated in her primary by Joe Miller, has launched a write-in campaign. In short, what was once a safe GOP seat is now a wide open race.

Your donations on ActBlue have a lot to do with that.

Misreading Tea Leaves

Jonathan Martin has a story on POLITICO about the Republican edge in third-party spending. The argument runs as follows: conservative groups like American Crossroads, American Crossroads GPS, the Chamber of Commerce, and the constellation of powerbrokers Yahoo called the Shadow GOP have outspent outside Democratic groups. That's true. Where Martin errs is when he equates that with Democratic donor disengagement and disarray:

Liberal-leaning organizations answer that it’s not a matter of desire but something more simple: They don’t have the money.

And that’s partly because, even after the historic accomplishments of the current Congress, some on the left are unhappy that priorities, such as a climate change bill, weren’t passed.

That strikes me as a misreading of the situation. For those of you who are political traditionalists, I'll note that the major Democratic committees, (DNC, DSCC, DCCC) all raised more in August than the major Republican committees. The Democratic committees also spent more and have more cash on hand. 

If you're curious about how outside groups are doing, let's compare some quick numbers. According to Justin Elliott of Salon, American Crossroads raised $2.6M in August, with $2.4M of that coming from just three billionaires. In contrast, ActBlue sent $4.2M to 1,422 Democratic candidates and committees, via 34,000 donations. It's true that American Crossroads does something different than ActBlue–they'll be making ad buys. We won't. Instead, we'll be sending money to people who make ad buys. That seems like a fairly minor difference, from the perspective of Martin's argument.

There are two things at work here, and neither of them are donor unhappiness.

The first is a change (a change that Martin's editors have noted) in how individuals relate to large institutions that's become an essential part of the zeitgeist. The Tea Party derives its support from a claim to represent authentic conservative values, rather than compromised establishment mores. ActBlue makes a less-ideological pitch: we send your money where you tell us to send it–provided you're sending it to a Democrat. But both ideas feed off the zeitgeist in different ways, and represent a shift away from the more traditional conduits that Martin quotes in his story. But it's a shift, not a diminution.

Second, a major factor behind support for Republican groups like American Crossroads is the sheer disarray of the Steele-driven RNC. In the table I linked to above, the RNC is the only body with a negative change in cash on hand, and the Republicans have been forced to compensate. In short, it's not an apples-to-apples comparison. Martin examines the lagging indicator on the Democratic side and the leading indicator on the Republican side, and then concludes that Democrats are off their game.

Express Yourself

For those of you who don’t already use it, ActBlue offers a free service called ActBlue Express. ActBlue Express allows you to store your donation information on our secure servers, which saves you the hassle of entering it every time you give through ActBlue. In addition, it allows you to view how much money you’ve given and raised, and break that down by recipient type and dollar amount.

In short, with ActBlue Express you can track and manage your political giving the same way you would balance your checkbook.Click here, or on the demo image below, to sign up. (Remember: it’s free!)

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Leaving the Silo

In the wake of the upset in the GOP DE-Sen primary, there's been a lot of chatter about what the Tea Party means, vis-a-vis the Republican Party. One of the most compelling takes, in my opinion, is that the Tea Party represents a decentralized web of Republican supporters, and that decentralization is the cause of much of the intra-TP conflict and the difficulty the Republican establishment has in co-opting that passion and using it to benefit their preferred candidates (See: Grayson, Trey; Castle, Mike).

This isn't a new story, though it may be one the Republicans haven't heard yet. The Democratic Party has already undergone many of these changes. The growth of online communities like DailyKos, Democratic infrastructure like ActBlue, and eventually the Obama wave had a lot of inputs–minority status and the old saw about necessity and invention, frustration among the base and Americans broadly–but the key point is that growth was largely uncoordinated. The rebranding of the DNC is a recognition of that reality, Natalie Foster, the DNC's New Media Director, told TechPresident's Nancy Scola:

It's not just about the DNC anymore. It's about the Democratic Party. […] This could become that something that any kid could
draw in chalk in front of their house, that any college kid could riff
on.

That was my first thought as well, which is why I was surprised to see Ben Smith snark "this will turn things right around." While we're only a few weeks out from the election, the point of changes like these isn't to tip the scales in pivotal house races, it's to build a party that is tune with the changing tenor of American life. The same could be said of the growth of grassroots fundraising, or the White House's embrace of non-traditional media outlets. (Also, in fairness, Ben picked up Nancy's take.)

To return to my original point, while there may be an equivalence in process between Democrats and Republicans, I don't mean to suggest an equivalence in content. The Republican embrace of Kristolismo over the past two years has radicalized their base in a way that the Democratic resurgence did not. Embracing a base conditioned by years of opportunistic fear-mongering about "socialism," Islam, the deficit and terrorism seems likely to produce legislative outcomes that are significantly less benign than the healthcare reform bill.