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  • Writer's pictureMarc Johnson

Money and Politics

The Second Oldest Profession

Mark Alonzo Hanna was a Cleveland industrialist and U.S. Senator from Ohio at the turn of the 20th Century and, more importantly perhaps, he was William McKinley’s campaign manager in both of McKinley’s successful presidential elections. Hanna was also, in many respects, the father of the modern political campaign. He mastered the art of political fundraising, hitting up his friends in big business, and he built a national political organization that carried his friend McKinley to two big wins over William Jennings Bryan.

To the extent that Hanna is remembered today by anyone other than a political history junkie it may be for his most famous quote.

“There are two things that are important in politics,” Hanna said. “The first is money and I can’t remember what the second one is.”

Raising money for political campaigns – and, yes, I plead guilty to having done it – may be the second oldest profession and in the election of 2010 it may have become almost as unseemly as the oldest profession.

Generally speaking, over the last 50 years or more, political parties have declined in importance in American politics and individual candidate fundraising and the shaking of the money tree by so called “independent expenditure” groups has been on the rise. Campaigns have gotten more expensive with most members of Congress and the Senate spending hours a week on nothing more important than raising cash for, as they say, “the next cycle.”

The media reports on this race for money often at the expense of what the candidates have done or pledged to do. Money – lots and lots of money – is firmly at the center of the American political system. Nothing new about that. It has been that way since Mark Hanna’s day, but there is something new and fundamentally different happening wit all the money in this cycle. Huge amounts of money aimed to influence political races is being secretly raised and spent in vast and unaccountable ways.

President Obama, suggesting that some of the cash originates with foreign sources, has called the new developments “a threat to our democracy.”

It is difficult to track all this cash, but one recent estimate puts the total haul at more than a quarter billion – with a B – dollars in independent expenditures this year, or roughly four times as much as was spent in the last mid-term in 2006. More than $3.5 million was spent by outside groups on one day last week in the fiercely contested Colorado Senate race.

As Politico reported yesterday, secrecy, as in who is giving the money (and why) to influence the outcome of mid-term elections, is at the very heart of what has happened in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s controversial 5 to 4 ruling in the Citizen’s United case.

A group founded by, among others, former Bush Administration political guru Karl Rove, has received much of the attention surrounding the new secret money. That group, American Crossroads, started out saying it would disclose the source of its contributions, but when the money was slow to flow the direction changed and transparency ended. As Politico said, the group was against anonymous contributions before it was for them and when donors realized they didn’t need to disclose, the cash started flowing.

The Politico report goes on: “The success Crossroads has had in attracting anonymous donors highlights a broader trend on the right in which political activity has increasingly shifted to non-profit corporations that can conceal donors’ identities. Republican finance insiders…say it is easier to get major GOP donors to contribute when there’s no risk of having their identities disclosed and being subjected to either additional appeals for money from other groups, or to criticism from President Barack Obama and other Democrats.”

For his part, Rove, a student of history who knows all about Mark Hanna, has invoked the “they do it, too” defense. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Rove contended recently that some of Obama’s chief operatives have done the same kind of secret fundraising and spending in the past.

“Robert Gibbs (the White House press secretary), worked in 2004 for a group that ran ads and didn’t disclose its donors until after the primaries,” Rove contends. “(Obama’s) White House political director, Patrick Gaspard, came from the Service Employees International Union, which doesn’t disclose its campaign contributors and admitted earlier this week that it might be spending money from foreign nationals on this year’s elections. Are these two also a ‘threat to our democracy,’ to use the president’s words.”

Even granting Rove his larger point that everyone is guilty of this profligate subterfuge, the scope and scale of the secretly funded campaigning this year has been unlike anything in the past, recent or distant. As Eliza Newlin Carney points out at the National Journal, what is really different this year is the Supreme Court’s Citizen’s ruling that equated corporate and labor money with free speech.

“In fact,” Carlin writes, “plenty of secret campaign spending went on even before Citizens United, in the form of ‘issue’ advocacy that amounted to thinly-veiled campaign ads. The difference now is that politically active nonprofits, which are largely exempt from disclosure rules, may openly back or oppose candidates when they use previously-banned corporate and union cash. The ruling also emboldened big donors, particularly Republicans.”

Three things are certain from these new developments: Democrats will find a way to catch up and their efforts will be just as distasteful to the concept of full disclosure as what Rove and his crew are doing now; scandal is sure to follow, and with it a further decline in public confidence in, ironically, both politics and business.

Those with short memories may have forgotten that Watergate, the little “third rate burglary” that brought down a president, had its origins in questionable campaign funds secretly applied in the interest of doing anything in order to win. Montana Sen. Max Baucus has already called for an IRS investigation of the new campaign finance reality. Stay tuned for the scandal.

Even more seriously, our already broken political system will be in for another shock, as E.J. Dionne noted recently in the Washington Post.

Dionne asks us to, “Imagine an election in a Third World nation where a small number of millionaires and billionaires spent massive sums to push the outcome in their preferred direction. Wouldn’t many people here condescendingly tut-tut such a country’s ‘poorly developed’ sense of democracy and the inadequacy of its political system?”

It may not matter to many Americans, but this new level of non-transparency in our politics will look to many in the rest of the world a little like an election process in a Banana Republic or some less than perfect western democracy like, say, Italy, where Silvio Berluscini regularly manipulates the media empire he owns and controls in order to own and control an election.

This “new” system has a definite stench about it. In a perfect world, elections would be won, not bought. Even in an imperfect world we should know who is doing the buying.

Jesse Unruh, the one-time California State Treasurer and Assembly Speaker, may have been a latter day Mark Hanna. Jesse certainly understood the central role of money in politics. Unruh’s famous quote – “Money is the mother’s milk of politics” – has been a smiling justification for a lot of excess when it comes to money and politics. But even Unruh made that quip in a simpler time and in a time when full disclosure of the sources of political money had become widely accepted.

Without some much greater level of transparency, this political milk will sour and with it public confidence in our entire political culture. The smarter folks in both parties need to fix this – quickly.

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