Political Animal


January 09, 2013 12:56 PM The Democracy Initiative

By Ed Kilgore

This might disappoint Breitbartians who believe every left-of-center writer receives daily instructions from The Cabal, but I knew nothing about the big meeting of “top brass from three dozen of the most powerful groups in liberal politics” that Andy Kroll discusses at MoJo today. It apparently convened at NEA headquarters in December, and put together something attendees call The Democracy Initiative:

At the end of the day, many of the attendees closed with a pledge of money and staff resources to build a national, coordinated campaign around three goals: getting big money out of politics, expanding the voting rolls while fighting voter ID laws, and rewriting Senate rules to curb the use of the filibuster to block legislation. The groups in attendance pledged a total of millions of dollars and dozens of organizers to form a united front on these issues—potentially, a coalition of a kind rarely seen in liberal politics, where squabbling is common and a stay-in-your-lane attitude often prevails.

While these three goals (with the exception of filibuster reform, where I think we are all about to be disappointed) aren’t terribly relevant to the immediate, day-to-day challenges of progressive politics, they obviously address three huge structural problems that give conservatives and the GOP power all out of proportion to their popular support.

Voting rights issues are clearly the most amenable to (and dependent on) the kind of multi-faceted national campaign this Democracy Initiative contemplates, insofar as it involves pitched battles in state capitals around the country and a subject-matter most Americans basically understand. Building external support for the inside baseball of filibuster reform is trickier, particularly since we’re talking about something very immediate:

Liberal groups in the Democracy Initiative want to fix [filibuster abuses], and they used the December meeting to plan a coordinated push to urge Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to rewrite the rules. Democrats have until January 22, when the window closes on easy rules changes, to get the reforms they want.

That’s less than two weeks from now, so let’s hope the money is already flowing freely.

The third goal of reducing the role of money in politics is obviously the most daunting, not only because of Citizens United but the older position of the Supreme Court dating back to Buckley v. Valeo that identifies political money with constitutionally protected political speech. Here’s the short-term strategy, as reported by Kroll:

On money in politics, Nick Nyhart of Public Campaign, a pro-campaign finance reform advocacy group, singled out Kentucky, New York, and North Carolina as potential targets for campaign finance fights. In a recent interview, Nyhart said the Kentucky battle would likely involve trying to oust Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), public enemy number one for campaign finance reform, who faces reelection in 2014. In New York, Nyhart said, activists are pressuring state lawmakers, including Gov. Andrew Cuomo, to pass a statewide public financing bill in 2013. And in North Carolina, the fight is more about countering the influence of a single powerful donor, the conservative millionaire Art Pope, whose largesse helped install a Republican governor and turn the state legislature entirely red.

Kroll also mentions plans for some guerrilla warfare against corporate supporters of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and ALEC.

This is all encouraging, but we’ve heard it before. Even though the filibuster reform campaign is a true longshot, it will be instructive to see if the Democracy Institute participants are able to get anything going before the deal goes down.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • Mimikatz on January 09, 2013 1:07 PM:

    The most important right now is filibuster reform. The threat to block the appointment of Jack Lew as Treasury Secretary, a man whom Congress already confirmed twice to positions in the Obama Administration, proves the necessity of removing nominations from the ambit of the filibuster and reforming the filibuster generally. Without this, the Senate will be crippled.

    Then the preservation of voting rights and getting out the vote in 2014. Money in politics is important, but 2012 showed that it isn't decisive in Presidential or Senate races, only House and local races. And even there it can be countered.

  • c u n d gulag on January 09, 2013 1:15 PM:

    All of these sound like worthy causes.

    But how about funding some more Liberal Think Tanks?

    The Republicans and Conservatives can call any number of their countless Think Tanks to pull some study out of its @$$, to justify their positions about anything they want from AAA and abortion, to zebra's and Zoroastrianism.

  • Gandalf on January 09, 2013 1:23 PM:

    There is one sure fire way to check the supreme court on money in politics and that's a constitutional amendment. If we don't do something about it the wealthiest individuals will start setting up their own personal little fiefdoms in the state governments. It doesn't take a genius to see where that leads to. The Roman empire set the precedent for the resuts that take place from that kind of governance.

  • John Robert BEHRMAN on January 09, 2013 2:32 PM:

    This makes me wonder of these folks out of the Victory Lab have really thought this through:

    "(E)xpanding the voting rolls while fighting voter ID laws"

    First, both parties now have extensive data-mining resources they use to identify potential and mobilize actual voters. But, this is fundamentally parasitical, discriminatory, and manipulative. It is the same toolset that police, marketers, and criminals use to intimidate, exploit, and victimize people. Moreover, voters do not have to know much about these tools, read the technical documents, or the legalese to sense that the people who pay for campaigns are using these tools to get their way, not to project or protect citizens' voices or votes.

    Second, if this elite initiative of sycophantic "staffers" is to be "progressive" or just "strategic", why does it not include (a) an understanding of scientific work on the limits and unintended consequences of "Voter ID" or (b) any lessons learned from battlefield experience outside of a lobby or a courtroom? We have learned a lot here in Houston where Karl Rove and Dave Carney fight it out. But, all the Washington-centric party is interested in is our money. They think they already know everything.

    "Voter ID" and "Vote Suppression" generally are "natural experiments" which have run the longest and furthest here in Harris County, Texas -- a bastion of the largest "red-state" which is well defended by the national "test-kitchen" for GOP "vote-suppression" and "convenience voting".

    Red-states and counties are built out of a proficient right-wing party with a homogeneous following. Multiple demographic minorities constitute volatile Democratic majorities among the VAP, the registered voters, and the actual voters. But, now, virtually every Democratic legislator has a "safe", "cheap" seat and zero prospect of being "primaried" for indiscipline or self-indulgence. So, they hire sycophants and lawyers to protect their asses, their vanity, and their pensions, not to motivate or mobilize a Democratic majority with little reason to trust those claiming to represent them.

    Third, there is an inherent contradiction between griping about "money in politics" but organizing the only republican and democratic party we have as a professional and racial patronage chain that "targets" voters but actually represents self-serving donors. This leaves a huge popular gap that is going to be filled by right-wing pseudo-populists. They, at least, own their guns, rather than government concessions or licensed monopolies.

    Democratic voters have only elites that despise them but express that publicly as pity. Democrats do not need a sanctimonious left-wing party. They need a proficient and disciplined party.

  • jhm on January 10, 2013 8:41 AM:

    It is, I think, a fellow WM blogger who noted that filibuster reform does not, in point of fact, need to be a enacted with the other formulation, and reaffirmation of Senate rules on the first legislative day of a new Congress, but can be instigated at any time with an appeal to the parliamentarian. Assuming this is true, it might just be better for the interests of a more effective reform to get a milquetoast reform at the outset, with some gentlemen's agreements on the part of GOPers. When they proceed to break these agreements, then is the time to pass real reform.

    Of course, I do not really care when such things happen, only that they do; but more reform is better than less, and just as most people do not have a clue as to the filibuster as it is actually employed in the course of Senate business, only that the Body, ergo the majority, cannot seem to act, it just might be that protestations from the minority mid session, in concurrence with the passage of some popular bill, might be thought of by most as inside baseball, and focus on the legislation, not the process.