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Will Republican dirty money drive Democrats to the polls?

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Smart v. Stupid

Will Republican dirty money drive Democrats to the polls?

You should have called me last October, Mr. President

  • Thomas Nast cartoon

The Washington Post just began its second annual Next Great Pundit Contest. Though I’m no longer eligible to enter, it did provoke another look at my contest-losing entry from last year. I wrote about the landscape Democrats might face in the upcoming midterms. It turns out to have been, in Brit-speak, “spot on.” Here’s what I wrote one year ago today:

Democratic strategists now musing about next year’s midterm elections must be concerned about soft supporters. The Democrats already have a unity disadvantage, actually being the “big tent” both parties claim to offer. Membership includes northeast liberals, midwestern moderates and southern, conservative Blue Dogs. By contrast, Republicans are narrow casting more than ever.

Now mix in a big bunch of brand new Democrats. Both parties’ memberships were roughly equal in 2004. Republicans won by having more reliable voters, not more of them. By 2008, a sea change had occurred. The Hoover Foundation reports Democrats netted a 9.6 percent gain in just four years. Then nearly ten million new voters cast ballots. In cobbling together the majority that delivered the White House to President Obama, Democrats added large numbers of “Fickles.” These include single issue liberals, politically inactive Bush haters, far left outsiders, and late-choice independents (who just waited to guess the winning side.) Will they turn out for a midterm?

Lately, the Fickles are increasingly feckless. Not content with showing Neoconservatives the door and staving off a depression, they’ve begun to complain that their pet issues aren’t solved. After all, they reason, the better part of a year has passed. Shouldn’t Obama have completed his agenda by now?

Rather than advocate for their issue, they heap blame on the president. Obama is disingenuous, they complain. He didn’t keep his promises. The new administration is “same as it ever was.” It is as if they suffered a traumatic memory loss right around the time President Bush hung a for sale sign on his brush ranch.

I get it. Politics is a particular dark art. You have to pay really close attention to understand how it works – and even to see what happened. Nonetheless, it ought to be obvious that the big tent shelters lots of different wants.

In the two-party system you win when the tide flows your way. But your specific issue waits in line, subject to timing and to political considerations. Gay rights advocates – for example – are perfectly right to advocate their issues. Equality for them is the key civil rights imperative of our era. But taking up the issue before the mid-term elections is a strategic mistake. So is killing the advocate. Disowning Obama – or worse, campaigning for revenge – might mean big Republican gains. If new Democrats stay home, they haven’t just opted out. They’ve picked the other side.

One year later Republicans are hot to vote, Democrats merely lukewarm. Democrats are engaged in a concerted get-out-the-vote effort and everyone is placing bets on how much Democratic GOTV can limit the inevitable Republican gains.

The first salvo, the leaked notion that Hillary might be on the 2012 ticket had the desired effect. Democratic strategist Mark Penn was the perfect choice to promote this rumor, and the DNC appears to have played to author Bob Woodward’s “insider-ego” with a juicy tip for his book tour. Democrats who had softened on Obama (many of them originally Hillary’s voters) began paying attention. For the next five news cycles – an eternity in today’s cable-driven political world – Democrats listened to every word uttered by the President.

He used the time wisely, launching the second front – Republican Dirty Money – at a time when everyone was listening. Since the Supreme Court recently allowed it, private and secret money has been flooding to right wing message makers – almost none of it from people making less than $250,000, trust me. “Given the record spending this year, one has to wonder whether the campaigns have no-limit credit cards,” says Travis Ridout, co-director of the Wesleyan Media Project and associate professor of political science at Washington State University.

The plausible notion that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce was using foreign money to influence elections is the opening salvo of Dirty Money. The U.S. Chamber, unlike your local group of main-street business people, has always been dominated by multi-nationals and always sought to block any legislation that might give workers a leg up or foreign companies a push down. The Chamber has a fundraising presence in over 100 foreign countries. It describes each as “independent” but a random check reveals that they share one of a very few webpage designs. This one walks like a duck…

Local Chambers have no formal influence on the U.S. Chamber. Its board consists of “a self-appointed board composed of large companies” according to Mother Jones. Well over half of the current board is corporations with foreign interests (although they do seem to have a few local chamber members now.) Most recently they opposed legislation aiming to tax-reward companies that brought jobs back to America. HR5980 failed, and the Chamber’s anti-American agenda was demonstrated. The U.S. Chamber seems to be working for exactly the opposite of what your local Chamber of Commerce hopes to do.

Races are tightening across the country, so there is evidence that Dirty Money is working. And a just released poll finds that over 80 percent of Democrats, Republicans and Independents support full disclosure. But another GOTV strategy – mobilizing younger voters – appears to be stalled. Despite several campus speeches by the President and a visit to MTV, it has been largely ineffective.

Next up, both the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and Organize for America are rolling out massive door-knock and grassroots mobilization campaigns. If Dirty Money continues to stick, these local organizers have a simple, election-winning issue. Will Democratic GOTV blunt Republican deep pockets? Not completely. But it seems to be having an impact. If any more evidence of foreign contamination emerges, it could be the game changer.

Jimmy Zuma splits his time between Washington, D.C. and Tucson. He writes the online opinion journal, Smart v. Stupid. He spent 5 years in Tucson in the early ‘80s, when life was a little slower, swamp coolers were a little more plentiful, Tucson’s legendary music scene was in full bloom, and the prevailing work ethic was “don’t - unless you have to.”

The U.S. Chamber, unlike your local group of main-street business people, has always been dominated by multi-nationals and always sought to block any legislation that might give workers a leg up or foreign companies a push down.

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