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Tilting at Windmills

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April 29, 2011

PRIORITIES USA, CROSSROADS GPS, AND FIGHTING FIRE WITH FIRE.... One of the more important political developments of the day is news of a new progressive campaign operation called Priorities USA. But as the group's efforts get underway, it's worth having a debate about principles and pragmatism.

The operation is actually going to include two entities: Priorities USA and Priorities USA Action. One will disclose its donors, the other won't. The two-pronged fundraising effort intends to raise $100 million to defend President Obama's re-election bid from a massive right-wing attack operation, and is being run by former White House insiders, led in part by Bill Burton.

If the model sounds familiar, there's a good reason for that -- it's basically the same setup Karl Rove helped put together with Crossroads GPS. Just as with Rove's operation, Priorities USA will benefit from unlimited, secret donations, including funds from lobbyists and political action committees whose checks Obama won't accept.

Some credible voices on the left aren't happy about this, and Republicans are already screaming bloody murder, accusing Democrats of hypocrisy. On the surface, that seems like a legitimate point -- Dems, including the president himself, spent a fair amount of time just last year condemning the notion of secret contributions in campaigns. Now, Priorities USA intends to do exactly what Dems said they're against.

And while I think that criticism seems fair -- I'm against unlimited, secret donations, too -- the larger context is critically important. Greg Sargent has a smart post on this.

...Obama and Democrats would close this group down tomorrow if groups on the right agreed to do the same. This is not a matter of spin or argument. It's a matter of simple factual reality that Obama and Democrats have long supported, and continue to support, legislation that would outlaw such non-disclosure -- even for themselves. Dems believe the rules that allow undisclosed spending are wrong, and support changing those rules -- even for themselves. By contrast, Republicans want to keep the rules as they are, because they believe undisclosed spending is a right that should be protected.

The point is that a change in the rules is not currently possible in the real world. That leaves Dems with two choices. They could ask their donors to play by different rules than GOP donors are playing by.... The alternative for Dems is that they play within the rules just as Republicans are, while continuing to advocate for a change in those rules.

Exactly. Conservatives on the Supreme Court created a new landscape. Democrats would prefer this legal environment didn't exist, but it's not up to them. To be sure, Dems could stick to principle, refuse to play by the new rules, and make defeat far more likely, or they could level the playing field and (to mix metaphors) fight fire with fire.

I'm inclined to think the latter is the smarter move. National campaigns in which Republicans, the Koch brothers, and Karl Rove are held to one standard, while Democrats voluntarily abide by a more difficult standard is a recipe for failure.

The national discourse doesn't benefit from these new rules. But the discourse also suffers when only one side follows the rules to get its message out to voters. There's no need for a double standard, and it seems Priorities USA will ensure there isn't one.

Paul Begala, who is also helping lead this effort, had an extremely amusing response to a question from Greg on this, noting, among other things, "We strongly support reform. We support new laws to require transparency of all donations. We support repealing the wrongheaded Citizens United ruling. But, to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, you go to war with the laws you have, not the laws you wish you had. Mr. Rove, the billionaire Koch brothers, the Chamber of Commerce, the NRA, the American Action Network, FreedomWorks, Americans for Prosperity, the Club for Growth, and other right-wing groups are projected to raise hundreds of millions of dollars to advance an extreme agenda which would hammer the middle class. We will not let their attacks go unanswered."

Steve Benen 3:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (23)

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Comments

There is so much I wanted to say, as I read this piece, but I think it is sufficient to be succinct:

Politics ain't Beanbag.

Posted by: DAY on April 29, 2011 at 3:33 PM | PERMALINK

You don't take a knife to a gunfight.

Posted by: SMurph on April 29, 2011 at 3:42 PM | PERMALINK

I don't know which is funnier, the high pitched squealing coming from Karl Rove's sty or the pieties coming from the outstanding senator who got his ass kicked by a buffoonish half-wit who beat him down with secret millionaire money.

Posted by: Another Steve on April 29, 2011 at 3:46 PM | PERMALINK

'Republicans are already screaming bloody murder, accusing Democrats of hypocrisy'. What is it called when you are accusing someone of it(hypocrisy) at the same time your criticism is it (hypocrisy)? I know it's not an oxymoron, I'm thinking 'balls' but I know there is a grammatical word...but the real point is WHO THE F* CARES WHAT THEY THINK???

Posted by: SYSPROG on April 29, 2011 at 3:48 PM | PERMALINK

This reminds me of the classic Bill Cosby bit about a referee giving out the rules of the game at the start of the American Revolution: "OK, you Americans get to wear whatever you want, and hide and shoot from behind rocks and trees. British, you have to wear red and march in a straight line." I don't want to be the British. Unfortunately, you just know the MSM is going to grab on to the "Nyeh, nyeh, Democrats are hypocrites!" meme, which will undercut the effort. I just hope the group's campaigns are straightforward and adult enough to be effective, instead of the quasi-adolescent snark that left of center groups sometimes seem to fall into.

Posted by: dcsusie on April 29, 2011 at 3:56 PM | PERMALINK

Right on! The Dem groups, advocacy groups, etc have an obligation to the people who would be hurt by this budget to defend them as aggressively as possibly within the current laws, and at least as aggressively as the people who would make the Bush tax cuts permanent at the expense of Medicare.

Posted by: bruce k on April 29, 2011 at 3:58 PM | PERMALINK

BTW I'm trying to share some of your posts via Digg and they are not linking to the right posts. Just FYI.

Posted by: MDunn on April 29, 2011 at 3:59 PM | PERMALINK

Republicans will argue that is only hypocrisy on the part of Dems because only Dems complain about secret donations. It's not true, but it is a sad development and raises the questions: what do Dem contributors have to hide? And which donors will this attract? Oil companies? Banks? Hedge funds? Ambassador to Belgium wannabees?

Posted by: Danp on April 29, 2011 at 4:05 PM | PERMALINK

It's time to fight fire with fire. And don't forget to include Grover Norquist on the enemies list. Let's not get swift-boated again.

Posted by: MuddyLee on April 29, 2011 at 4:10 PM | PERMALINK

The GOP has absolutely no incentive to change the regulations as long as the status quo is all benefit and no damage to them. It's not as though they are opposed on principle or something.

Accepting such donations ourselves is the only way to encourage them to ever ban them. Especially if we can out raise them. So do it with gusto.

Posted by: Jon on April 29, 2011 at 4:13 PM | PERMALINK

"Credible voices on the Left." Who decided who gets that designation? Their opinion is worth no more than any other Democratic voter.

Posted by: hornblower on April 29, 2011 at 4:51 PM | PERMALINK

Look the media has been making false equivalencies about EVERYTHING whenever the Republicans are caught out doing something dastardly.

Now they'll have something, but will anyone listen? Turnabout is fair play.

I hope they outraise Rove by billions.

Posted by: jjm on April 29, 2011 at 5:03 PM | PERMALINK

There are some voices, far from credible, who claim to be on the left, who simply do not want Obama to be re-elected.

One has only to understand the difference in being a leader of the fringe left under a Republican president and under a Democratic president. Under a Republican president, a fringe left leader is in the vanguard of the opposition, at the frontlines of the battle, crying for freedom from oppression and decrying the abuses of the facist republicans. Everyone waits with bated breath for their latest pronouncement. Under a Democratic president, meh, who cares what the fringe left has to say.

What? Don't they are about what actually happens to the country? Ha, they reply, that's for the suckers to figure out.

Posted by: chi res on April 29, 2011 at 5:45 PM | PERMALINK

People are missing one thing though. Is fighting this fire with fire going to get us any closer to single-payer health care? Who would be giving money to the Democrats?

Posted by: Phil Perspective on April 29, 2011 at 6:43 PM | PERMALINK

Soon after the Supreme Court passed Citizens United there was a lot of talk about how Congress needed to craft new legislation to halt the travesty it created....unlimited anonymous corporate and labor contributions to political campaigns.

You don't hear that today. Too many members of the Village and Congress have too much vested in the system the Court now allows and worse yet, as I have noted a couple of times in recent posts, defenders of corporations are screaming over the possibility that Obama might go through with a plan to require any corporation bidding on government contracts to reveal its political contributions.

"OHHHHHHH GODDDDDD," they argue (most notably and recently that recognized legal expert John Yoo), "You can't possibly do that because it would violate corporate rights to privacy."

To which I have replied, "As an individual person, If I give more than $200 as a political contribution, current law requires that my name, address, my profession, the recipient and the amount be publicly recorded and listed by the Federal Election commission and searchable online.

The law has also held for many years that a corporation has the same rights as a person in the eyes of the law.

So why should corporations be allowed NOT to reveal their contributions, while individuals must?

Crickets.....and if any legal changes are made I am sure the end result will be that corporations will continue to be defined as persons, but a special kind of person that doesn't need to follow the laws "real" citizens do.....but hey, that's pretty much the way the system works already, without any need for any time-consuming changes in the law.

Whew!

Posted by: dweb on April 29, 2011 at 6:57 PM | PERMALINK

I bet that some of that squealing on the Right is fear-driven (as almost everything else is).

Since the donations will be anonymous, who's to say that some -- ostensibly staunch -- Republicans won't be contributing, to hedge their bets? And, if so, those same dollars won't be flowing along the Rovian Way...

Posted by: exlibra on April 29, 2011 at 7:04 PM | PERMALINK

The dems could stand on higher moral ground now if they had introduced legislation to require disclosure of donors' names right after the citizens ruling when they had their majorities. Pelosi could have pushed it through the House, I feel sure. It probably wouldn't have made it through the senate due to the conservadems and lieberman, but the rest of them could now say Hey! We tried and let the others suffer the consequences.

Posted by: CDW on April 29, 2011 at 7:37 PM | PERMALINK

CDW, the House of Representative DID pass the DISCLOSE Act on June 23, 2010. The Seenate Democrats DID try to pass the legislation but after repeated delays resulting from Republican tactics, they finally failed to achieve cloture on a straight party line vote of 59 for and 39 against on September 23, 2010. Lieberman and all the conservative Democrats did, in fact, vote for this bill in the Senate.

Note, the Citizens United Decision was handed down on January 23, 2010 so there was no opportunity to introduce this legislation before the election of Scott Brown in Massachussetts deprived Democrats of their ability to achieve cloture with 100% Democratic and Independent support and no Republican votes.

Please stop letting your biases discount those cases where the Democratic Party really did do the best they could. In particular, don't deny them the moral high ground on this issue.

P.S. separate from my response to CDW and addressing those who ask what Democratic donors have to hide, the advantage of taking large donations anonomously is that it reduces Republicans opportunity to attack the donors as a way to distract from the issues. How many people will want to give $1 million or more to a group like Priorities USA if they know that they and their entire life is going to be put under a microscope by the Republican attack machine as happened to George Soros?

Posted by: tanstaafl on April 29, 2011 at 8:33 PM | PERMALINK

Saying this is hypocrisy would be like telling the manager of the Red Sox that if he despised the DH so much he should bat his pitcher 9th.

Posted by: Johnnydrama on April 30, 2011 at 3:02 AM | PERMALINK

The criticism IS valid - expect that Republicans have been doing it forever and killing Democrats. And I have a feeling that Dems will likely disclose their donors a lot more readily than the GOP ever will.

Posted by: JEA on April 30, 2011 at 8:15 AM | PERMALINK

tanstaafl - Thank you for the review of the Democratic efforts on disclosure legislation. I've grown very cynical about Democratic Party politics and I probably don't give them enough credit. But my own Democratic Party senators are talking about adopting cat food commission proposals and one of them even wants a balanced budget amendment. Pshaw!

Posted by: CDW on April 30, 2011 at 12:29 PM | PERMALINK

dweb touched on my view.

I think Citizens United has a point. The government should not be able to muzzle someone's ability to speak to as many as possible.

However, I don't see anywhere in the Constitution that allows unlimited free ANONYMOUS speech.

Say what you want, spend what you want, but we get to know WHO's saying it.

Until this obvious flaw in campaign finance is corrected, Dems must exploit the same loophole. How else can George Soros send in 250 billion dollars to Obama and pretend to be millions of small donors? (After all, that's what the tea party is... the Koch brothers and their thousands of muppets. Without the money, the Tea Party goes poof.)

Posted by: toowearyforoutrage on April 30, 2011 at 9:15 PM | PERMALINK

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Posted by: sushil porwal on May 2, 2011 at 4:48 AM | PERMALINK
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