Who would have guessed that, in the midterm election home stretch, the White House would spend more than a week talking about television commercials? And yet it’s been nearly impossible of late to hear an Obama administration official speak without getting a quick primer in the way independent conservative groups are running hundreds of millions of dollars in attack ads against Democratic candidates around the country—with virtually no disclosure of who, exactly, is paying for them. President Obama has been hammering this point since the first week of October, and his top aides are still making the case. On Sunday Robert Gibbs called on one of those groups, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce—which is airing some $75 million of ads, almost entirely directed at Democrats—to “open up its books” and disclose its donors. “If people don’t disclose, there’s a reason,” senior advisor David Axelrod warned the same day.
As I wrote in this week’s print issue, Democrats are hopeful that talk of corporate money arrayed against President Obama will rile up the party’s liberal base. But some strategists are skeptical. Remember when Bob Dole would thunder “where’s the outrage?” over alleged Clinton campaign finance scandals in 1996? No one cared, in part because the economy was booming. Conversely, voters might not be interested in political process at a time of 9.6 percent unemployment.
Democrats may have other goals in mind, however. One is to motivate not base voters but megadonors. Some of the wealthy Democrats who financed major independent pro-Democratic ad campaigns in 2004 and 2006 are keeping their wallets closed this time around. One operative involved in such efforts says the recent publicity around the GOP money juggernaut has led to an uptick in giving by liberal donors. But, he adds, “it’s hardly a tsunami.” And it’s nearly too late for money to make a difference now.
More significant could be what the current fight bodes for 2012. By their own admission, Republicans are only warming up their money machine for the next presidential election. “We’re definitely building a foundation,” Steven Law, executive director of American Crossroads—the independent conservative group advised by Karl Rove that will spend upwards of $50 million this fall—told me last month. “We hope to be an important player in 2012.” The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is also sure to spend big in that election. Democratic criticisms of those groups won’t be enough to affect this election. But the bright media spotlight shining on outfits like American Progress and the Chamber could lead to post-election legal scrutiny from the IRS and the Federal Election Commission that could cramp those groups in the coming presidential contest.
Notice, however, that few Democrats argue such outside groups should be abolished completely. Indeed, David Axelrod—who reportedly will soon begin setting up Obama’s re-election committee—may be hoping that Democrats will match the Republican effort in the coming two years. That would be a dramatic contrast from the 2008 campaign, when Obama’s team discouraged outside groups from running ads on his behalf, leading some of them to shut down. The rationale? Officially, that Obama disapproved of loosely-regulated independent groups trying to affect the political process. The real reason may have been that Obama’s campaign was able to raise massive cash on its own from small donors—ultimately more than $500 million—and was able to take both a political high-ground position. Shutting down outside groups, who aren’t allowed to coordinate with candidates and party committees, also allowed the Obama campaign to control the party’s message almost completely. But Obama’s epic fundraising haul will be hard to match in 2012, especially with many Democratic voters feeling disillusioned about his performance. And if Republican groups like the Chamber and American Crossroads continue to loom large, Axelrod and company may be tempted to revise their thinking about telling Democratic allies to stand down. “We will see whether they have that luxury [in 2012],” says one party strategist.
That may explain why, much as Obama advisors like Gibbs and Axelrod complain about conservative independent groups, they don’t condemn their existence outright. Instead, their critique targets the way these groups exploit legal loopholes to conceal their donors’ identity. That may give Obama’s strategists the wiggle room to encourage a 2012 money machine on the Democratic side–so long as it discloses its donors, thereby retaining an air of transparency legitimacy. Speaking to ABC News this week, Axelrod said that he is “for disclosure for everyone. The American people ought to know where millions and millions of dollars in our campaigns are coming from. Whether they are supporting Democrats or Republicans. Transparency is what we need in the political system.” Perhaps in 2012 Axelrod will see to it that Democrats lead by example.