Let’s state as clearly as possible that political spending from anonymous donors is bad for our democracy — whether it’s coming from Republicans or Democrats. Now that leading Dems have announced a new group designed to raise and spend big bucks on Obama’s reelection — some of it from undisclosed donors — voters will be seeing reams of ads from the Dem side without knowing who paid for them.
That’s wrong. Voters have every right to know who’s funding ads supporting Dems and Republicans alike.
But that said, the charge coming from the right this morning — that this amounts to a brazen and hypocritical sell-out on the part of Democrats — demands a response.
Please, folks, let’s approach this hypocrisy charge with a bit of nuance. Here’s the Republican National Committee’s statement:
The Obama White House has completely walked away from the mantle of “change” in order to embrace the type of politics they once relentlessly attacked. Just as when he reneged on his promise to campaign within the public finance system, this President is all too happy to embrace and discard “principles” according to what is most politically expedient for him.
The Rove-founded group Crossroads GPS added: “Obama’s brazen hypocrisy, in encouraging his own operatives to start groups exactly like the ones he demagogued last year, shows how cynical this President can be when it comes to perpetuating his own power.”
There’s one problem with this argument: 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. Russ Feingold argues today that Dems should take this course, claiming: “Our democracy is best served by rejecting the fundamentally corrupt strategy of embracing unlimited corporate influence.”
That’s an admirable position. And you could also argue that Dems shouldn’t accept undisclosed corporate donations because it will make it harder for them to draw a contrast with the GOP on which party really represents the people against unchecked corporate power.
On the other hand, leading by example accomplishes nothing in Washington, and adopting this posture could over time make long term reform less likely, by giving Republicans an electoral advantage. 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. This is not as pure as Feingold’s position. But it’s not hypocrisy, either.
Incidentally, saying this doesn’t let Obama off the hook. Indeed, the real test for Dems is not whether they lead by example, but whether they really continue to push for meaningful campaign finance reform. As David Donnelly of the Public Campaign Action Fund put it today:
The real measurement of a reformer is not whether you play by the rules as they exist today. It’s whether you support and push for real change. It’s against that measurement that we think the president has, so far, come up short...he hasn’t lived up to his 2008 campaign pledges to press for more substantive and comprehensive changes like fixing the presidential system and pressing for the Fair Elections Now Act.
Again, it’s wrong for voters not to be told who’s paying for ads aired by Democrats — period. But the main problem here is the rules that enable this, and Obama and Dems are seeking to change those rules, even if their proposed reforms don’t go quite far enough. Please let's not lose sight of this or pretend it’s somehow no longer relevant.